Fascinating Furioso

14 Mar

Donizetti’s Il furioso all’ isola di San Domingo had its first professional performance in the UK in living memory at the Hackney Empire on 12th March by the wonderful English Touring Opera. The way in which this company mixes the popular with the worthwhile rarities is a source of constant amazement to me  Normally, this sort of piece would be the preserve of students or, possibly, an Opera Rara concert.  Here was a full staging with a really good cast.  My only query was over whether they needed to use the rather gawky title of The Wild Man of the West Indies.

It isn’t a neglected masterpiece, but the joy of the Donizetti revival is that it has shown how much worthwhile work there is that we don’t get to see and what a serious composer he is.  What struck me was the sense that Donizetti was still, 43 operas on, experimenting or at least approaching each with an open mind to their challenges. This wasn’t a simple soprano/tenor/baritone piece but a six hander of interesting characters in an opera about madness and reconciliation. Not everything in the opera works, but there is enough of value to make it well worth the occasional revival.

A particular joy was watching it blind, so to speak. I hadn’t looked up the plot beforehand nor tried to hear any of the music. Moreover, the lighting in the auditorium was too dim for me to read the plot so I was following it as it happened and I didn’t know how it would end. I recommend it to you, particularly now that surtitles help you follow the story. You appreciate the way in which Donizetti handled the work and how far it is not your cliched Italian semiseria opera.

It’s set on a plantation. A mad man is terrorising the neighbourhood. He turns out to be Cardenio who has run away from his wife after finding that she has been unfaithful. Donizetti and Ferretti (who did the libretto for Cenerentola) convey the madness really well and Cardenio strikes me as a plum role for a decent baritone – Michaels-Moore, Keenlyside, Lucic, Hvorsostovky would have a marvellous time with this. A woman is shipwrecked and there are absolutely no prizes for guessing that she turns out to be Cardenio’s wife, Eleonora. What I wasn’t particularly expecting was his brother to turn up also. He has two challenging arias and a fairly minimal role in the drama. You sense that he was added because (a) they needed a tenor in there somewhere and (b) to pad the story out. Of course everyone gets to meet for a rather splendid Act I finale (the sextet may not be quite Lucia standard, but it’s very good). In Act II the question is simply over whether or not the two will get back together or not. I won’t spoil the surprise.

The plum roles are Cardenio, Eleonora and Fernando, the brother, but there is a good second soprano role for Marcella, the plantation superviser’s daughter (Donna Bateman was excellent), for Bartolomeo, her father (Njabulu Madala – very promising and a good Donizetti style), and his slave Kaidama (Peter Braithwaite, likewise excellent in a Pedrillo sort of part).

Craig Smith sang Cardenio – sympathetic, intelligent, really stylish and making me wish that I’d seen his Boccanegra. Maybe a native Italian might have got more out of the language and a slightly more refulgent voice could have had more fun wiht the music.  It worked in the lovely intimacy of the Hackney Empire and he created a moving, believable figure with cultured, intelligent singing. Donizetti’s view of madness his is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s in King Lear – simply being unaware of where he is and who he is with, obsessing on the past.  As Elleonora, Sally Silver made an appealing penitent heroine, well in command of the music and managing the coloratura with aplomb. Nicholas Sherratt sounded great as Fernando – his slightly reedy voice works well in this repertory and he has the top notes, of which there are many. The chorus of 11 did an excellent job.

Jeremy Silver conducted flexibly, getting the idiom and catching the contrasts between the comedy and seriousness of this opera and getting them right. The ETO orchestra was really good.

Iqbal Khan directed. He took the text and the opera at face value and made me believe in the characters and their predicaments. He didn’t avoid some classic operatic poses and he avoided the rather uncomfortable political overtones of slavery in the West Indies, probably rightly.  Perhaps the set was a little too bare for the frequent scenes where people are watching others unseen or hiding or appearing unexpectedly. It did the trick, though and it was good to see the opera being taken seriously and intelligently.

Hand on heart, this doesn’t have any of those great, heart-stopping Donizetti numbers, the sheer brilliance of some of his comedies or the continuous quality of Lucia. But there’s a lot of very attractive stuff here and parts where Donizetti creates convincing, moving music. Thanks to ETO for doing it and I think it’s brilliant that they’re taking it round the country. It’s not a masterpiece but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable engrossing evening and it’s worth the occasonal revival.  If you can catch it, go.

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