Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo / The Wild Man of the West Indies
(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 25 March)
ETO (English Touring Opera) continues its exploration of the operas of Donizetti, both those virtually unknown to a modern audience and more established repertoire pieces with this new production of an 1833 piece based on one of the tales-withn-a-tale in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This one tells of Cardenio, a Spanish gentleman driven mad when he discovers that his wife Eleonora has had an affair with his own brother Fernando.
Escaping the home he now cannot bear to inhabit, he has been washed up on the Spanish possession of San Domingo. The plantation slaves fear him but the overseer’s daughter Marcella pities him (her father is somewhat ambiguous in his attitude). Subsequently a shipwreck leaves a battered and hardly conscious Eleonora on the shore, followed by Fernando himself.
So far the plot seems set to be a straightforward drama which might, or might not, have a happy ending. Cervantes, librettist Jacopo Ferreetti and Donizetti have conspired to give us a species of tragi-comedy, thanks to the introduction of the most three-dimensional character in the opera. This is the salve Kaidamà, brilliently portrayed by Peter Brathwaite. Kaidamà not only has some of the best tunes; he is also the timeless and instantly recognisable wheeler-dealer survivor.
With the exception of the excellent Donna Bateman as Marcella, so kind-hearted that she’s bound to find herself bypassed when Cardenio (Craig Smith) and the sweet-voiced Eleonora (Sally Silver) finally reconcile. Smith sings and acts with great intensity; so does Njabulo Madlala as Bartolomeo, torn between natural human compassion and his duty to his employer.
The week link at the performance I attended was Nicholas Sharratt’s Fernando. It’s not the most forgiving of tenor roles, let alone the most sympathetic, but I felt he was straining after his top notes at the end of his two arias.Director Iqbal Khan keeps the stage movement, notably that of the all-male chorus slave chorus, persuasive as the cast clamber up, under and around Florence de Mare’s set which suggests part of the skeleton of some enormous beached sea-monster.
Jeremy Slver conducts the ETO orchestra with respect for the score and the performers. It’s no fault by anyone on-stage or in the creative team that, for me, this genre felt slightly unnatural and as though the composer wasn’t completely at ease with it, as he had been for L’elisir d’amore (1832) which preceded it and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) which followed.
Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo also plays at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 17 April and the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 27 May.