The fuss over the ‘adult’ Aix-en-Provence production of Così fan tutte arrived in Edinburgh ahead of the performances, with refunds available for the young and sensitive. I thought about Moira Knox, moral guardian and Edinburgh’s Mary Whitehouse, who passed away this summer, whose ghost would surely have been outside with a placard as this production sees a rape and a black man strung up by the heels against a wall even before the overture ends. Così fan tutte is not an easy opera at the best of times and director Christophe Honoré’s bold choice of 1938 setting as Mussolini fortifies the Italian Colony of Eritrea was always going to be a powder keg, yet the colonial setting with its social and racial hierarchies uncomfortably resonated with Mozart and Da Ponte’s misogynistic tale. Ferrando and Gugliemo blacking up in disguise as two Dubats and the lively chorus of Cape Town Opera onstage threw the racial challenge right in our faces.

A hand-picked international cast and the superb Freiburger Barockorchester under Jérémie Rhorer promised musical excellence, and they did not disappoint. A pre-performance peek into the orchestra pit was like looking into a musical workshop, with odd shaped trumpets, rows of horn-players’ crooks neatly hanging up and families of blonde coloured woodwind, some still in bits but all set out ready to go. Rhorer set a cracking pace with a lively mellow string sound that retained a biting edge with unexpected woodwind glints, the rasp of the natural brass and thwack of the period timpani. With Roberta Ferrari’s inventive fortepiano adding additional layers of substance to the recitatives, this was Mozart freshly sparkling as if heard anew.  

In a busy staging, a cast of actors were ever-present, one moment eavesdropping into the action, the next being physically pushed around by the colonists. The two sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi were sexually charged, dangerously flirtatious and provocatively dressed for nocturnal back-street colonial Africa. In an evening of forbidden pairings, other sexual combinations of race and gender were hinted at by body contact and wandering hands. American mezzo Kate Lindsey, a fabulously rich voiced Dorabella, had to have her passions literally hosed down at one point. A very long way indeed from her trouser-role repertoire, Lindsey gave a mesmerising lissom performance, a dizzy mixture of recoil and reckless sexual hunger.

Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten’s Fiordiligi melted hearts with her singing, a touch light but sensitive too, eventually claiming Joel Prieto’s Ferrando. Some welcome comic relief was provided by Sandrine Piau’s Despina, plotting maid, mad doctor and dotty notary, herself in dubious relationships. Rod Gilfry's gritty Don Alphonso was a study in malice, playing edgy power games with the locals as well as setting up Dorabella and Fiordiligi for their fall, a Mozartian tease these days we might call mental abuse and grooming. The singing was glorious, particularly the ensembles, and I don’t think I have heard the trio “Soave sia il vento” more tenderly done.

In a nocturnal setting, Alban ho Van’s scruffy back street sets with brazier and shabby shower block were sensitively lit by Domenique Bruguière, dark shadows producing plenty of corners for the lustful tale to play out. The cast drew heavily on their acting skills as simply getting through the physical stage directions while maintaining arias must have been a huge challenge. Argentinian bass Nahuel di Piero, a Guglielmo in robust voice, had to sing “Donne mie la fate a tanti” while raping a local girl (for the second time) after nonchalantly being seduced by Dorabella, who had to sing while taking part in an upright writhing body sandwich.

Honoré certainly set out to shock, throwing a challenge to audiences – which is absolutely fine – and it generally felt as uncomfortable as was clearly intended. The extended sexual longueurs in the long second act eventually became tiresome, as if our noses were being rubbed in the nasty mess, and where less would have meant more. That said, this was a wonderfully played, sung and performed production, but not ending happily as Fiordiligi grabs a rifle pointing it to her chin as the curtain comes down. Points made, but underlined in red.