The Wild Man of the West Indies (English Touring Opera – Tour)

A second half-forgotten opera by Donizetti joins ETO’s spring tour

Peter Braithwaite as Kaidama and Craig Smith as Cardenio in The Wild Man of the West Indies (ETO)
Peter Brathwaite as Kaidama and Craig Smith as Cardenio in The Wild Man of the West Indies (ETO)
© Richard Hubert Smith
Donizetti and his melodramas, eh? Lucia di Lammermoor may have her mad scene but the eponymous wild man gets a mad act-and-a-bit. Cardenio, the central figure in Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo, is a Spanish nobleman whose wife’s infidelity has cost him his sanity and who now ekes a feral existence on a tropical island. Poor man: if only some improbable but convenient encounters might occur to lift the scales from his eyes.

Premiered only six months after the perfectly constructed L’elisir d’amore (whose star aria, "Una furtiva lagrima", pops up in the orchestration here during act one), Il furioso‘s relative neglect is easy to comprehend for the story is piffle and dramatic interest practically non-existent. Nevertheless, as with its touring companion The Siege of Calais, English Touring Opera‘s production is a polished affair that’s designed with satisfying economy by Florence de Maré and allows audiences to enjoy some worthwhile music. Act one, for example, closes on a ravishing quartet and a stirring finale that might have graced a masterpiece.

Of the two operas The Siege of Calais is by far the stronger, especially in James Conway‘s dramaturgically smart reshaping, yet Il furioso is conducted by Jeremy Silver with similar sincerity and panache, a reading only slightly compromised by the limited number of strings in ETO‘s 33-piece orchestra. It’s the same onstage: daft goings-on are played out with integrity by a good company.

Iqbal Khan‘s direction is affectionate if not always judicious. He seems anxious that we should care for the characters and wish them well – a laudably philanthropic approach, certainly, but less good for dramatic tension. Individuals behave with changeable moods and little apparent motivation while the production’s tone wobbles uncertainly between comedy and darkness. Even the non-PC surtitles disconcert. Still, Khan keeps his singers busy and his audience entertained, which is no small achievement given the meagre material he’s working from.

'a pleasure to hear'

An opera with only six principals needs to be very carefully cast, and it has been. Does Craig Smith‘s velvet baritone make him a bit too nice for Cardenio? Is the excellent Nicholas Sharratt‘s high register less than ideally rounded for Donizetti's cruel lyric tenor writing for his brother, Fernando? Does Sally Silver sound a mite too spinto for Eleonora, the long-lost missus? Perhaps so in each case, but they’re still a pleasure to hear.

Character turns from Donna Bateman and Njabulo Madlala are welcome intrusions on the main action, while the most enjoyably rounded performance of all comes from Peter Brathwaite as the slave Kaidama. The indefatigable young baritone lights up the stage every time he appears, his well of energy exploited as much by the director as by his fictional master.

It is easy to take English Touring Opera for granted, but can any other company claim to be so truly national? Their range of repertoire is devoid of compromise, their 18-venue itinerary (19 if you count a stop-off in Budapest) hugely ambitious, yet twice a year they concoct a programme of new and unfamiliar operas and tour them from Poole to Perth – literally taking mid-scale opera to the masses. Understandably perhaps, The Wild Man of the West Indies is scheduled only sparingly with just ten appearances in 12 weeks, so keep an eye out. It’s worth a whirl.

Following its opening at the Hackney Empire, The Wild Man of the West Indies tours to Truro, Norwich, Cheltenham, Snape, Leicester, Warwick, Exeter, Buxton and Cambridge.