Most operas are lucky enough to have a star tenor. The Philadelphia Opera House’s ‘Otello’ has three.
Imposing, heroic but stricken with jealousy, mythical stage character Otello may seem too angsty to hit many high notes – at least in Verdi’s operatic character, adapted from Shakespeare. But Rossini’s unknown otello that the Philadelphia Opera House opens Friday – the centerpiece of its September-October 21. 3 Festival O22 — takes an alternate path in its story of the Venetian army general who is destroyed by his wife’s suspicions of infidelity.
Best known for his playful comedies, Rossini rages convincingly with an extravagant density of notes in a story that exposes the Venetian ruling class as a place where women are treated as property, marriage consolidates political power and heroes. soldiers expect to know their place.
Then there’s the casting: most operas require a star tenor; this one needs three, for the characters of Otello, Rodrigo, and Iago.
“Philadelphia Opera is so brave to put this Rossini otello“, declared the director Emilio Sagi, at the origin of the production 022 in Liège which places the opera in Europe of the 1920s to underline the hierarchy of the classes. “The voices also have to be very good actors. Otherwise, you cannot do this opera.
At the company’s first live Fall Festival since 2019, CEO and President David Devan said it will have an overall theme of virtuosity, whether it’s the ornate yet intense vocalism in otello at the Academy of Music, the theatrical immersion of Toshio Hosokawa The crow at the Miller Theater, the surreal outing in the mind of a tormented writer in the opera David T. Little/Anne Waldman black lodge featuring Timur & the Dime Museum at the Philadelphia Film Center, which also hosts genre films in a six-day opera-centric series.
“As we recover from this period of confinement, I think we need to look at operatic virtuosity in all its forms,” Devan said, “to give us a reason to leave home and be with others in an artistic experience. ”
otello was led by artistic adviser Lawrence Brownlee, the star tenor whose repertoire now includes 15 Rossini roles. Across Europe he was offered Otello, the title role requiring tenor agility but baritone nuances. It’s not Brownlee. A much better vocal fit is Rodrigo, Otello’s romantic rival for Desdemona’s hand. Brownlee had wanted to sing it for years.
But the first task was to find the right Otello. Through his European contacts, Brownlee was introduced to little-known 33-year-old South African tenor Khanyiso Gwenxane who had sung the Rossini otello in a small theater in Germany. They met in Zürich where Brownlee was singing, worked on the opera together, and had a Zoom meeting with Philadelphia Opera Music Director Corrado Rovaris (a Rossini specialist). The Philadelphia production is Gwenxane’s first American album.
“It’s my first big Rossini role. It’s outside my domain,” he said. “Among the tenors, we have a saying: if Jose Carreras, Bruce Ford and Nicolai Gedda can you can do it – if you’re on the right track, and it’s something I can do too.
Although Otello’s cast is multiracial, having two black tenors in the same productions is unusual. (The Philadelphia Opera House has long defended color-blind casting and worked to hire black performers.)
The cast allows for a deeper dive into the class distinctions of opera. How will the opera play out when Brownlee’s Black Rodrigo insults Gwenxane’s Moorish Otello for thinking he could marry the white, aristocratic Desdemona?
Devan asked the team to examine the cultural baggage associated with this celebrity. “Shakespeare is painful to watch,” Gwenxane said, referring to some of the play’s crude but often-cut dialogue. “Verdi’s opera is not pleasant at all. At first, you kind of take it personally. But that’s how they referred to black people then, now and in the future. I have to navigate such things every day. At the opera, you think you’re going to be able to get by, but you can’t. It becomes difficult for everyone. But I try to raise awareness, and that’s a role I can play in doing that.
The eye-opener for Brownlee is that Rossini’s 1816 opera – which sits between Shakespeare’s 1603 Othello and Verdi’s 1887 operatic adaptation – lacks explicit references to skin color. But Otello laments his appearance (“My appearance and costume are so different…”). Elsewhere, he is condescendingly called “the African”.
But not all Africans are black, Brownlee said, particularly in the mid-1920s in which opera was reinvented. Thus, the central emotional axis of the opera is Otello and Rodrigo vying for Desdemona – in a clash between the aristocracy and the military class. The usually racist Iago, also a tenor in this version, is less present. “It’s more about this person (Otello) from a different tradition,” Brownlee said. “We have to focus on the characters in order to make it a believable and believable story. You have to own the story. »
Gwenxane agrees with this: “If we play by race, it wouldn’t make sense this time. To me, that’s the most influential thing in society.
“I’m very happy to do it like this,” said director Sagi, who was beset by visa issues and was only able to advise him from his home in Spain. “When you have great characters, great singers, great actors, that’s [externals] doesn’t matter at all.
It is possible that Rossini’s librettist, Francesco Berio of Salsa, knew Shakespeare’s original sources, but was blissfully unaware of Shakespeare. Rossini’s world, after all, was not one of deeply considered dramaturgy. Operas were assembled in weeks – not years, as in present times – often with recycled music from past operas. Was Rossini a proto-feminist in making Desdemona (sung here by Daniela Mack) far more substantial than the tragic trophy wife of the other versions? Not likely. It just came out like that.
Certainly, the opera takes on additional dramatic weight by having a recitative accompanied by an orchestra rather than a keyboard. And Rossini’s murder of Desdemona in the third act is one of those lyrical outbursts that comes like a thunderclap. The composer seems possessed; director Sagi describes it more as theater than music.
Is it okay otello be the defining production of the O22 Festival? Devan observes that each festival has its own spirit in terms of acclaim and popularity. The crow is not a new play, but the fairness that comes with its Edgar Allan Poe origins plus the promise of theatrical innovation has already sold out performances. black lodge – a cinematic piece that now combines film and live-action elements – is about to sell out.
With a budget of $2.4 million, the festival is smaller than previous years in some ways, but larger in others. Opera on the Mall (a populist opera screening at Independence Hall) is absent, awaiting a new approach in the coming years when Devan plans multiple opera screenings in different neighborhoods. In contrast, the new series of film operas attracted 800 admissions which had to be reduced to 20. Classics such as the 1979 film directed by Joseph Losey Don Giovanni and the 2001 Carmen: a trendy hope featuring Beyoncé are mixed in with more independent films. Devan even refers to future years as “the Sundance of opera movies”.
The only predictable element are the life and death stakes so endemic to the lyrical genre. Don Giovanni is literally going to hell. Otello dies of guilt. Still, the journey is the thing. And to make sure Otello’s trip goes as it should, the indispensable Gwenxane guards against any possible COVID infection.
“I repeat,” he said, “and I hibernate.”
Festival Schedule 022: The Raven: Sept. 21, 24, 29 and Oct. 1, Miller Theater, all shows are sold out. Otello: Sept. 23, 25, 30, Oct. 2, Academy of Music, $25-299. Afternoon at the Academy of Vocal Arts: Sept. 24 (with André Courville) and Oct. 1 (with Latonia Moore), 1920 Spruce Street, sold out. Black Lodge: Oct. 1 and 2, Philadelphia Film Center, $25. Opera on Film: Sept. 27-Oct. 4, Philadelphia Film Center, entire series $25. Late-night snacks, including Bearded Women’s Cabaret: Sept. 21-25 and Sept. 28-Oct. 4 at The Switch, 421 N. 7th St., pay what you can. www.operphila.org215-732-8400.