On Rossini’s Otello at Opera Philadelphia.
Through its annual festival, Opera Philadelphia has established itself as an important source of new American operas. The practice continued this year with Festival O22, which offered the world premiere of David T. Little’s Black Lodge, a film with live performance, along with a new production of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven and ancillary events. But the company also deserves credit for recognizing that neglected works from the past, such as Rossini’s Otello, can likewise offer audiences new and stimulating experiences.
Though eclipsed by Verdi’s transcendent treatment of the same subject, Rossini’s Otello is nevertheless a fine example of opera seria from the rich Neapolitan period of the composer’s maturity. Rossini’s biography is full of colorful stories about his personal predilections, ranging from his culinary preferences to his curt dismissal of the Paris premiere of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Some are no doubt apocryphal, but one may be especially meaningful.
Late in life Rossini reportedly remarked, “I hope to be survived by, if nothing else, the third act of Otello, the second act of William Tell and the whole of The Barber of Seville.” Everyone knows The Barber of Seville, and the 2010s saw, finally, a flurry of productions of William Tell. But Otello? Opera Philadelphia’s production demonstrated why it deserves a spot on the list. Its third act, which follows Shakespeare more closely than the preceding two, is a masterpiece. But the first two acts should not be disparaged. Since the opera has three major roles for tenor, much of the fabric consists of confrontational tenor duets performed by the three in various character configurations: Rodrigo, a suitor for Desdemona favored by her father; Iago, evil as always, but here motivated by his previous rejection in love by Desdemona; and Otello himself, the known outsider, valiant in war but prone to jealousy of Desdemona’s (nonexistent) love for Rodrigo. (There is no Cassio.)
The mood of Act III is established at the outset by an offstage gondolier singing a sentence from Dante: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.” The words encapsulate Desdemona’s despair, as reflected in her Willow Song, which has all the poignancy of Verdi’s similar number in his Otello. Later, after Otello has killed her, Dante’s maxim becomes plainly apt, and here Rossini gives it brief musical representation. As Rodrigo and Desdemona’s father bring happy news of Iago’s death and their rapprochement with Otello, the music fleetingly becomes as joyous as anything in a comic opera, while Otello writhes in anguish. He promptly kills himself and the opera abruptly ends. One feels not at all shortchanged by the absence of a prolonged death scene.
Emilio Sagi’s fluent production at the Academy of Music was generally true to the opera, although his treatment of Otello as an outsider was sometimes heavy-handed, as when a bust of the victorious Otello was deliberately smashed. Daniel Bianco’s single set consisting of a reception room of eighteenth-century decor, with a staircase and balustraded balcony, was attractive, but it underwent little change, even of lighting—a bed would seem a minimum requirement for Act III, but Desdemona had to sleep on a chaise longue. Her lifeless body lay exposed on the staircase for anyone nearby to look at, even though the score specifies the moment Otello should reveal it.
Opera Philadelphia assembled a strong cast, although it was not surprising that the standout was Lawrence Brownlee. His glorious liquid tone of voice accompanied the florid music in a matchless way, meeting the expectations one has of him. Brownlee made Rodrigo a more-than-credible contender for Desdemona’s affections. Moreover, his singing was consistently stylish, eschewing questionable practices like ending musical numbers with an unwritten high note, while at other moments venturing into the vocal stratosphere when it made musical and dramatic sense. The conductor, Corrado Rovaris, Opera Philadelphia’s music director, seems to have given the cast sound stylistic advice, since the other singers followed Brownlee’s example in this respect. Similarly, the annoying tradition of vocal dropouts—brief pauses—in the codas of allegro numbers was almost nonexistent (on September 25). Overall, Rovaris led an astutely judged, handsomely coordinated performance that allowed the singers and score to shine.
The South African tenor Khanyiso Gwenxane, in his U.S. debut, made a convincing Otello. Although he did not always project in the lower-middle register, his singing was technically strong and secure on top, and he was chilling in his final confrontation with Desdemona. Iago here is a rather shadowy figure, without a solo scene like the one Verdi gives his character, but the fine tenor Alek Shrader brought out his villainy and sang compellingly. As the cast’s one male non-tenor, Christian Pursell, a bass-baritone, excelled as Desdemona’s father Elmiro. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, as Desdemona, ensured that Act III made its impact. Her Willow Song, exquisitely sung, was hauntingly persuasive, and Mack was arresting in verbally countering Otello as Desdemona faced death. As Desdemona’s devoted confidante Emilia, Sun-Ly Pierce sang affectingly and with lovely tone.
For many, this Otello will have been their introduction to Rossini’s opere serie, and more than a few should be eager for more.
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