From war torn Calais to the sunny climes of San Domingo (modern day Haiti/Dominican Republic), English Touring Opera’s Spring season continued with Donizetti’s Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo, given here as the Wild Man of the West Indies, though performed in Italian. Labelled as an opera semi-seria, the genre can be a difficult one to pitch, with happy endings being obtained through only the most contrived of manners, and to my mind the only really successful one is Rossini’s La gazza ladra – even that has its longeurs.
Unlike L’assedio di Calais, there are a couple of live recordings available of the piece, the earliest being from a Siena performance in 1958 and the other being the much to be preferred Savona performance in 1987. Its most recent outing has been through the auspices of the Bergamo Musica Festival, with performance taking place in Bergamo and several regional Italian theatres in 2013. The critical edition of this piece, produced by the Fondazione Donizetti, formed the basis of the present performances.
First performed in 1833 at Rome’s Teatro Valle, it came close on the heels of Ugo, conte di Parigi, L’elisir d’amore and Sancia di Castiglia, all first performed within 12 months. The libretto, termed a melodramma by Ferretti who also wrote Rossini’s Cenerentola, manages to avoid much of the awkwardness of other opera semi-seria with the comic servant Kaidamà being played in a fairly straitlaced way in Iqbal Khan’s production as a sensible fool. A clown certainly, but a clown in the manner of Shakespeare’s Feste rather than Dogberry. It’s ultimately based on the same part of Cervantes’ Don Quixote that Shakespeare and Fletcher used for the lost play Cardenio (now reconstructed as A Double Falsehood). The first Cardenio was Giorgio Ronconi who would go on to play the first Nabucco in the following decade.
Florence de Maré’s attractive looking set managed to convey the imagery of a wave and the prow of a shipwreck. Lit by aqueous greens and blues for the most part with the occasional foray into bright sunlight, it served the opera with only one small change for the second act, when part of the shipwreck was dismantled by chorus members. Costumes were generic 19th Century breeches for the men and rags for the chorus of plantation workers. The libretto generally translated the references to race sensitively but it was rather disturbing that the largely white, middle-class, older generation thought that the translation to ‘Blackie’ was the height of comic genius.
If the production had a downside, it was the poor blocking for the chorus, with singers hanging around at inappropriate moments, or dancing in the most embarrassing fashion during two numbers. Characters declaiming love or sorrow to each other were often placed at the opposite of the stage, making such declaration nonsensical.
Tempi edged towards the sluggish, particularly the stretta of the introduction which could have done with an injection of energy. Orchestral playing was controlled with some fine woodwind playing that was rather let down by a squeaky clarinet solo in the introduction to Cardenio’s aria ‘Tutto è velen per me’. The tessitura seemed much better suited for an oboe, which is the solution Donizetti had taken when he used this prelude in Ugo, conte di Parigi but annoyingly for this analogy, Donizetti had originally used clarinet the first time around when he used it in Imelda de’ Lambertazzi.
Marcella, sung by Donna Bateman was charmingly naïve, with a pleasant tone. It immediately sent the tone for the evening that the events portrayed should not perhaps be taken so seriously. As her father Bartolomeo, Njabulo Madlala displayed a lyrical, steady baritone that belied the cruelty implied in his readiness to use the whip to control his slaves. His contribution to the opening of the Act 1 finale added depth to the character, that he’s not completely heartless, showing much kindness to the distracted Wild Man of the title.
With three baritones in the opera, the roles were well cast with three distinct sounding singers. As the slave Kaidamà Peter Braithwaite treated the role in a manner that gave it dignity, never succumbing to cheap stereotypes. He’s not a natural buffo but he sang clearly and his lighter voice was a welcome foil to the darker sound produced by Madlala and Smith.
Cardenio’s brother Fernando was taken by Nicholas Sharratt who sang with a fluent tenorino, floating up to his high notes in a manner similar to Gregory Kunde in younger days or Stuart Burrows. With a softly produced acuto at the end of ‘Ah, dammi, o ciel pietoso’, this was an elegant performance that was very pleasurable to listen to.
Sally Silver played Cardenio’s wife, Eleanora and often showed a controlled legato line but was less effective in this opera that in last year’s Oberon from New Sussex Opera. Louder top notes became shrieks and in her opening aria it was hard to tell if she was aiming for semi-quavers, trills or just had a wide vibrato. Seeing as the acuti are singer interpolations, surely it’s better to sing what’s written than attempt what sounds uncomfortable for singer and audience. Her characterisation was fine with a bittersweet resignation as she prepares to die in order to prove her love. Her mid-range was warm and well-rounded and had the acuti not been attempted this could have been a much stronger performance.
Playing the eponymous Wild Man, Craig Smith gave an awkward portrayal, less madman than just mildly perturbed and enjoying some free food into the bargain. There was much prat-falling in his first duet with Kaidamà, with him confusing his roast chicken for a conch (if one was feeling generous) or a mobile phone, this added to a rather disappointing scene where Cardenio is meant to be confusing Kaidamà for his wife. The cabaletta, ‘Era il sorriso’, had Braithwaite the stronger singer, though he did look more bored than frozen to the spot. The relationship between Cardenio, Ferdinand and Eleanora was not particularly convincing in light of Cardenio looking old enough to be their father rather than brother or husband. The duets with these characters gave off a more paternalist air and despite some fine moments from Smith, sometimes sounded tired and a bit worn. However, the opening to the act 1 finale displayed moving singing from Smith and Madlala as Cardenio relates his history. Showing a more brutish side to the character, in the unremarkable duet for Cardenio and Kai in Act 2, Smith’s unpleasant sneering at his fallen opponent become uncomfortable to watch with its references to empire building on the back of the slave trade but vocally was at least a more secure performance.
A welcome outing for a Donizetti rarity that will sadly not make it into the repertoire of the larger opera companies but ETO deserve much credit for their current interest in Donizetti which will continue next spring with a staging of Pia de’Tolomei.
(Photos : Richard Hubert Smith)