It’s a rare bel canto opera indeed where the central character in the grip of madness isn’t a soprano, but a baritone! Donizetti’s Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo – or The Wild Man of the West Indies as English Touring Opera has it – hasn’t strayed onto these shores for decades. The curious plot doesn’t bear scrutiny too closely with 21st century eyes, but musically it’s rather a fine opera and was given an admirable performance at the start of its UK tour.

Peter Brathwaite (Kaidamà) and Craig Smith (Cardenio) © Richard Hubert Smith
Peter Brathwaite (Kaidamà) and Craig Smith (Cardenio)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Forget Lucia, Elvira and Anna Bolena; Cardenio is in the grip of madness from the start. Cardenio, a Spanish gentleman, has escaped to the colony of San Domingo, driven mad by his wife’s infidelity with his brother, Fernando. Cardenio terrorises the natives whilst pursuing his ‘wild man’ existence until his estranged wife and brother land, shipwrecked, on the island. After several (too many) false starts, Cardenio regains his sanity, is reunited with Eleonora and they return for Spain (quite how is anyone’s guess, their ship having been smashed to pieces).

Dramatically, it’s questionable. Apart from a touching reconciliation scene between husband and wife, not a lot actually happens – there’s more backstory narration than your average Wagner music drama. Donizetti’s portrayal of the islanders is uncomfortable; Bartolomeo, the plantation manager, rules through fear. His slave, Kaidamà, provides most of the (intended) comedy, yet is the sanest character of the lot.

Njabulo Madlala (Bartolemeo) and Peter Brathwaite (Kaidamà) © Richard Hubert Smith
Njabulo Madlala (Bartolemeo) and Peter Brathwaite (Kaidamà)
© Richard Hubert Smith
Director Iqbal Khan makes much of the issue of slavery in a programme note, yet it’s not until the closing image – Bartolomeo raising his whip as his daughter and the natives cower – that he seriously broaches it, which is a bit late in the day. The ‘semi-seria’ tag is also problematic. The opera cannot make its mind up whether it’s serious drama or comedy and Khan doesn’t help with a few too many pantomime antics.

Florence de Maré’s simple design has the corner of the set looming up like the prow of a ship or a Hokusai wave, but the constricted space on stage means that characters who are often hiding from each other are in credibility-stretching proximity.

Donizetti’s score is attractive – the first quarter of an hour would sound perfectly placed in Don Pasquale or L’elisir d’amore. His treatment of Cardenio has a nobility about it which wouldn’t have disgraced some of Verdi’s baritone roles. There’s no great ‘mad scene’ as there is in Lucia di Lammermoor, but the (lengthy) Act I concludes with a wonderful sextet.

Craig Smith offers a fine performance, his flinty grey and gruff baritone well suited for the role of Cardenio, although it didn’t quite last the course this evening. From her opening aria “Ah! lasciatemi, tiranni!”, Sally Silver demonstrated her bel canto credentials as Eleonora with florid runs, although there was a touch of tightness on top notes. She and Smith acted well in their reconciliation scene.

Nicholas Sharratt’s attractive light tenor – perfect for Donizetti – displayed a tendency to lunge at high notes, but it’s an instrument with much potential. Peter Brathwaite’s Kaidamà stood out for its firmness despite having to shoulder the comic load of the production. Njabulo Madlala was a sturdy Bartolomeo and Donna Bateman a sparky Marcella, his daughter who is strangely drawn to the ‘wild man’. The male chorus sang lustily, but were given some dubious choreography.

Sally Silver (Eleonora) and Donna Bateman (Marcella) © Richard Hubert Smith
Sally Silver (Eleonora) and Donna Bateman (Marcella)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Jeremy Silver delivered a solid rather than inspired orchestral performance; a bit more zip wouldn’t have come amiss and little was made of the lovely little clarinet solo which introduces Cardenio’s dramatic scena “Tutto è velen per me!”. Il furioso may not be top drawer Donizetti, but if you can look past the plot, there’s plenty to enjoy in this spirited performance.