The Wild Man of the West Indies, English Touring Opera, ETO, Hackney Empire, March 2015Posted on 13 March 2015
This opera, mixing tragic and comic elements, has a Shakespearean tinge in the relationship of its main character Cardenio to a local slave named Kaidamà, like King Lear and his fool, though the ending is pure Donizetti.
The back-story is that the unfaithfulness of Cardenio’s wife Eleonora — with his brother Fernando to boot — has driven him mad. He has sailed to San Domingo, hence the original Italian title Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo, where his wild behaviour has made him an object of derision to the plantation owner Bartolomeo, and of pity to the owner’s daughter Marcella. A tropical storm shipwrecks Eleonora, after years of searching for her erstwhile husband, and then Fernando disembarks, bringing his mother’s wish to reconcile her sons. All is now set for further madness, threats of murder and suicide, and a moment in Act II where Cardenio loses his sight.
Donizetti’s librettist Jacopo Ferretti shows himself a master of clear characterisation and excellent interaction between the singers, and for the first time Donizetti made the hero a baritone. Essential for success are the baritone, bass-baritone for Kaidamà and soprano for Eleonora, and in Craig Smith, Peter Brathwaite and Sally Silver ETO provides all three. The huge joy of Ms Silver’s singing towards the end was enhanced by fine coloratura, and the interactions between the two men displayed real drama. Peter Brathwaite’s superb interpretation and bold singing, well countered by the chorus was a highlight of this production, and Craig Smith’s Cardenio was dramatically performed, though I would have preferred the appearance of a lower age difference to his wife and brother.
The tenor role of the brother Fernando was superbly sung by Nicholas Sherratt, showing resonances with L’elisir d’amore, which Donizetti composed less than a year earlier. Njabulo Madlala sang strongly as Bartolomeo, and Donna Bateman as Marcella melded well in her duets with Eleonora. The wildness and the emotional power of the music towards the end of Act I, under the excellent baton of Jeremy Silver, gives way at the end to pure Donizetti joy, rendering it all tamer than anticipated but an intriguingly enjoyable evening of opera.
English Touring Opera has done a superb job of reviving this rarely-performed work, with a production team headed by Iqbal Kahn, highly effective designs by Florençe de Mare and superb lighting by Mark Howland. I love the changes of lighting for the sea at emotional moments in the opera and the way the light filters through the on-stage ship at times.
I very much look forward to more such Donizetti revivals, which in London at least attract sell-out audiences.
Performances continue on tour at: Hall for Cornwall, Truro, 18th Mar; Norwich Theatre Royal, Mar 25th; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 9th Apr; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 18th Apr; Curve, Leicester, 21st Apr; Warwick Arts Centre, 23rd Apr; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 2nd May; Buxton Opera House, 15th May; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 27th May — for details click here.