Wednesday night’s performance by the English Touring Opera at Norwich Theatre Royal probably inspired mixed opinions. I had a few reservations which I mentally noted as I watched it, but overall had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. During the bus journey back, however, as I fell into conversation with a fellow audience member who clearly – and I here mean this unsarcastically – knows far more about opera than I do, my view of the spectrum of responses considerably broadened.
Many of these reactions relate to the opera itself. Apparently, Donizetti, like many composers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, recycled passages from his earlier works to bulk out his later ones, and this practice can be discerned in The Wild Man. You know how it is: you’ve written an opera that was performed in Rome, and you’re commissioned to write one to be staged in Naples. How many Neapolitans are likely to have seen the former? Ah, it’s worth the risk! Also, towards the end of the plot there’s a strange business involving pistols, and an enigmatic letter that Cardenio’s brother hands to him, the significance of which is never explained. As well as this, the Caribbean setting seems to be there merely for its exoticism; once Cardenio et al depart, the plantation status quo resumes, as if undisturbed. As for tonight’s performance itself, it featured a few moments of weak singing.
From this, an explanation could be swiftly constructed as to why this opera has fallen out of favour after its initial euphoric reception in 1833, but both it and ETO’s rendition also had many merits. Craig Smith, in the title role, despite recent illness (a detail announced before the performance), was very strong, as were Njabulo Madlala and Donna Bateman in the roles of the plantation manager Bartolomeo and his daughter Marcella. Peter Brathwaite played Kaidama with comic brilliance, and Sally Silver’s Eleonora was on the whole breath-taking in her negotiations of the complex vocal runs, whether despairing or joyous. The plot recalled the Shakespeare of the comedies, with a happy ending despite some – perhaps appropriately – slightly mad minor narrative excursions. In particular The Wild Man contains many parallels with The Tempest: island setting, shipwrecks reuniting brothers, slave figure, and slave-master/daughter character pair. Yet it’s also based on an episode from Cervantes, with the main story revolving around Cardenio’s escape to the island and subsequent madness after he discovers his wife Eleonora’s infidelity. Altogether, it’s a wild thing.
The orchestra performed excellently, too, highlighting some strengths of Donizetti’s work, such as the focused scene closures, or the collaboration with the ensemble which produced occasional potent sonic punches. The lighting and set also showcased their designers’ talents every now and then; the lighting during the shipwreck, and towards the end, were perfect, and the main dashed vessel scenery piece with its trapdoor enabled a smooth handling of many of the hide-and-seek necessities of the plot. As a tangent off this, the acting in some places was also very fine; often, the facial expressions alone of Brathwaite, Bateman, Madlala and Silver were enough to carry the scene.
So despite technical flaws in the opera itself, and a few weaknesses in its delivery, the performance was commendable. The Wild Man of the West Indies is not an ideal work, and this may in a small way have caused it to be imperfectly performed, but it does have its great moments, and tonight had its great performers. The ETO has given its audience members what will probably be a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience, regardless of their opinions of it.