English Touring Opera’s production of Donizetti’s 1833 opera Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo (The Wild Man of the West Indies) represents the first time it has ever been professionally staged in the UK. As a piece it proves intriguing, and its subject matter is almost guaranteed to make the viewer feel highly uncomfortable. If, however, the best nights at the opera are those that really make you think then this production could not come more highly recommended.
The story concerns the Spanish nobleman Cardenio who after he discovered his wife’s infidelity with his brother Fernando fled to the Caribbean Island of San Domingo. With his experience making him mentally unstable and prone to violence, he is now known among the native plantation workers (themselves exploited and whipped by the manager Bartolomeo) as the madman. When his wife Eleonora and Fernando are subsequently shipwrecked on the island, Cardenio finds being reminded of his love far too painful. Following a series of difficulties, however, he and Eleonora are finally reconciled, although the ending only proves joyous for the Spanish characters.
Also on the island is Bartolomeo’s slave Kaidamà, the treatment of whom may have been partly responsible for the opera falling out of favour in the first place. At the end amidst the general rejoicing he is left being abused as much as before. The opera is not racist because it does not condone such treatment but rather exposes it, and Kaidamà himself is shown to be a highly intelligent and complex character. Nevertheless, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, which may have put off nineteenth century audiences, and breaks the golden rule for moving an audience that good, truth or justice must ultimately triumph in one way or another. Even operas with tragic endings such as Tosca possess a certain poetry that is lacking here, as there is absolutely no change in any of the slaves’ circumstances over the course of the evening.
If the mistreatment of slaves is one theme of the opera, then so too is that of women. When Fernando first arrives on the scene Cardenio initially finds it easy to be reconciled with his brother, and it is only Eleonora’s appearance that sees him ‘explode’ once more as if all the blame for what happened rests with her. This said, towards the beginning of Act II Cardenio and Eleonora undergo some form of reconciliation before this time the arrival of Fernando opens up old wounds again.
In Iqbal Khan’s production, Florence de Maré’s set consists of one section of a ship’s hull, and with this curling up at the end it feels reminiscent of Michael Levine’s design for Tim Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House. This proves very clever because shipwrecks lie at the heart of so much of the opera. One causes Fernando and Eleonora to end up on the island, and another lies behind the whole story. We learn that when Cardenio first fell in love with Eleonora her father’s ship was suddenly wrecked. When this left her family with nothing, Cardenio’s father refused to bless their love, and it was in the aftermath of this that all the troubles started. At the same time, using a ship as the basis for action that occurs on land feels appropriate for the topsy-turvy ‘hell above, heaven below’ world that we see. It also mirrors several comments made by Kaidamà in which land and sea are deliberately ‘confused’ as he reveals his sharp wit.
As with English Touring Opera’s other Donizetti offering, L’assedio di Calais, Jeremy Silver conducts with a sound combination of precision and exuberance while from among the strong cast the performances of Craig Smith as Cardenio, Sally Silver as Eleonora and Peter Brathwaite as Kaidamà stand out in particular.
English Touring Opera will perform La bohème at the Hackney Empire on 13 and 14 March. Following this L’assedio di Calais, Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo, La bohème and two children’s/family operas will continue to tour the country. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.