Thursday 9 April 2015

Castaway in the east: The wild man of the West Indies

Donizetti: Wild Man of the West Indes - ETO, Sally Silver - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Sally Silver and company
Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Donizetti The Wild Man of the West Indes; Sally Silver, Craig Smith, Peter Brathwaite, Njabulo Madlala, Nicholas Sharratt, dir: Iqbal Khan, cond: Jeremy Silver , English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Mar 12 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A spectacle and performance it would be a shame to mis

The ETO's performance of Donizetti's 'The wild man of the West Indies' at Hackney Empire was a superb exploration of 19th century island life. Directed by Iqbal Khan and conducted by Jeremy Silver the performers found humanity and pathos in Donizetti's less than finest offering.

Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (1797-1848) was the youngest child of a pawnbroker in Bergamo, Italy but was educated at the Lezioni Caritatevoli School where he learned music and literature until his voice broke. The school was run by the opera composer Simone Mayr who mentored the young Donizetti through the Academia Carrara and helped him find a scholarship to continue his musical training. By 1819 Donizetti was starting to find his feet as an opera composer -writing 'Il falegname di Livonia' which was performed at the Teatro San Samuele in Venice.

Donizetti: Wild Man of the West Indes - ETO, Peter Brathwaite, Craig Smith - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Peter Brathwaite, Craig Smith - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
'Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo' (1833) - translated by the ETO as 'The wild man of the West Indies' was written in a mature style honed by the years of comic (and some serious) opera. It was written hot on the heels of 'L'elisir d'amore' (1832) and in the middle of a writing frenzy which saw him stage more than ten operas in five years and solidified his position as an opera composer to be reckoned with.

'Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo' is loosely based on one of the stories from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605) where Cardenio's one true love, Lucinda, marries his friend Don Fernando and Cardenio find solace in isolation. In this tale love eventually conquers all and Cardenio and Lucinda, as they are in 'Il furioso', reunited.

The libretto was written by Donizetti's several time collaborator Jacopo Ferretti but for me was lacking in movement and character development. The plot is simplistic with none of the twists and turns of 'L'elisir d'amore'. Donizetti was forced to repeat each phrase several times to provide enough space for his performers to make something of the music. The composition itself was lacklustre and half-hearted, with few chances for the performers to show off their skill. Some of this might be explained by the original cast who were all young performers and perhaps Donizetti was writing for their capabilities.

Donizetti: Wild Man of the West Indes - ETO, Craig Smith, Sally Silver - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Craig Smith, Sally Silver and company
Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
That said, what this opera does have is space for the performers to perform. What they could not say with words they had to say with their bodies and emotional tone – and this is where the ETO excelled.

The first act was dominated by the day to day island life and, to their credit, the ETO did not shy away from depicting the slavery which a 19th century audience would have keenly felt. The road to emancipation for Santo Domingo was not smooth with slavery only being widely abolished during the Haitian Haitian occupation (1821–44). Slavery was abolished in 1833 in the British West Indies.

Craig Smith was superb as the half mad Cardenio and had an interesting relationship with Peter Brathwaite (last seen singing Entartete Kunst) as the scared and bullied salve, Kaidamà. Bartolomeo (the plantation manager) – Njabulo Madlala and his daughter Marcella, performed by Donna Bateman, provided the voices of reason. But their characters especially (and their voices) could have withstood further development by the composer. More too could have been made out of Marcella's love for Cardenio and the potential for jealousy when Cardenio's wife, Eleonora performed by Sally Silver, appeared on the scene.

Donizetti: Wild Man of the West Indes - ETO, Nicholas Sharrat - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Nicholas Sharrat - Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
The final player was Nicholas Sharratt who portrayed Fernando. In this interpretation of Cervantes' story Fernando was Cardenio's brother who had had an affair with Eleonora. Again these relationships were very clinical. There was some lingering resentment of Fernando by Cardenio, but this was quickly overcome.

I did wonder at the end of the first act how Donizetti was going to eke out the second half – however it was here that he supplied the more interesting music in some protracted solos for Cardenio where Smith had to chart his way through differing moods. Sally Silver's flexible and passionate voice made the most of her character's desperation and Sharratt's clear and unforced top notes shone out.

The clever ship/quay stage design by Florence de Maré, and the costumes, brought the island to life and provided an evocative setting for the magnificently believable performances. The orchestra were a little heavy handed on all the identical repeated cadences which they had been given by Donizetti – but who can blame them. Even the surtitles gave up leaving swathes untranslated.

'Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo' is rarely performed and even that alone would be a good enough reason to see it. However, despite the uninspiring writing, the ETO have managed to produce a spectacle and performance that it would be a shame to miss.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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