sat 20/07/2024

The Wild Man of the West Indies, ETO, Hackney Empire | reviews, news & interviews

The Wild Man of the West Indies, ETO, Hackney Empire

The Wild Man of the West Indies, ETO, Hackney Empire

Far from wild, this show is far too tame for real operatic drama

The 'Wild Man' himself: Cardenio flees Spain to take refuge on the island of San DomingoRichard Hubert Smith

“Do you think they’ve got enough plot to get us through to the end?” I overheard a lady anxiously asking her husband during the interval. It was a fair question. Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies was written within a year of L’elisir d’amore, and the two operas share many things, but not that spark of genius that can transform a pantomime into a drama. Rarely has so little happened in an opera, and with even less effect.

Which makes it all the more baffling that the imaginative and usually so reliable English Touring Opera would tackle it. General director James Conway is quoted in the programme as saying he only chooses works he thinks the company “have a good chance of doing very well”. I’d argue that here the dice were thrown long before the company even started work on this production – the first, incidentally, in the UK in living memory.

Most of the action has already happened by the time the opera starts

Derived from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the story is simple enough, involving a Spanish nobleman turned mad through jealous rage, his philandering brother and his estranged wife, who all end up, in varying states of volition and undress, on the island of San Domingo. Here they abuse and bully the native population, while fighting, reconciling and narrowly avoiding a suicide pact.

The trouble is that most of the action has already happened by the time the opera starts, so – with the exception of the Act II reunion scene between the mad Cardenio (Craig Smith) and Eleonora (Sally Smith) – most of the stage-business only serves to narrate the backstory. Which leaves the singers and chorus desperately searching for anything approximating function or intent, all the while trying hard not to be racist in this slavery-centric context. It’s all rather awkward.

Although Florence de Mare’s lovely set – rearing up at the back, part wave, part ship –  and Mark Howland’s evocative lighting give the action every chance, director Iqbal Khan can’t seem to make the scene work. Time and again on the Hackney Empire’s compact stage, characters barely a metre apart spend lengthy episodes “not noticing” one another or colliding for comic effect. Perhaps if the score were stronger or more certain of itself none of this would matter, but this is Donizetti by the yard. And with the exception of Fernando’s Act II aria (nicely sung by Nicholas Sharratt) the music barely troubles itself with the mood or the emotion of the action underway.

Conway speaks passionately about the opera’s psychology, and there’s no faulting the potential of a story that plays games with sanity and madness and chooses an elderly, complicated bass for its hero rather than a glossy young tenor. Unfortunately Donizetti makes little of his material, and there’s nothing that comes even close to equalling the mad scene of Lucia or the emotional truthfulness of L’elisir.

Smith (pictured left with Silver) delivers a fine performance loaded with character and inner life. His carefully judged understatement and Peter Braithwaite’s busy naturalism (as the put-upon Kaidama) contrast with Silver’s dramatic histrionics. Both she and Sharratt struggle to relax at the top of their voices, leading to some rather wayward musical climaxes. Conductor Jeremy Silver opts for sturdy tempos that could occasionally do with throwing caution to the wind.

With determined work from the male chorus and plenty of energy from the cast, ETO just about get away with this show. But I for one won’t be heading back to San Domingo any time soon.

The singers and chorus are left desperately searching for anything approximating function or intent


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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The fine singing of most of the cast fails to disguise the fact that this is an opera that was not worthy of resurrection. So much weeping and shedding of tears (if the surtitles were to be believed) that I'm surprised the island was not washed away. Difficult to work out whether folk were in love with or hated each other at any one time. The "English" tenor of Nicholas Sherratt did not fit with the robust singing of the rest of the principals.

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