Washington Classical Review » Blog Archive » Philadelphia Opera Discovers Fascinating Rarity With Rossini’s ‘Otello’ Tri-Tenor
The Philadelphia Opera House’s “O22 Festival” continued Friday night with a revival of Rossini’s rarely performed staging of Othello.
The neglect of this 1816 work is understandable if not justified. Verdi’s 1887 masterpiece on the same material is one of Shakespeare’s supreme lyrical settings, while Rossini’s libretto Otello, by Francesco Berio of Salsa, takes liberties with the source material common for its time but less forgivable by later generations.
The opera also requires three tenors in the male lead roles, a feature of the singers available at the time but an unusual casting assignment today. As Opera Philadelphia has demonstrated, however, there’s a lot to appreciate about it earlier. Otello, and for audiences largely familiar with Rossini’s comedies (including those of us who are less fond of them), it is something of a revelation to discover what the composer had to offer in his dramatic stage works.
The unique choices of Salsa’s libretto are most felt in the first two acts of the opera. Where Boito’s libretto for Verdi remains centered on the central drama between Iago, Otello and Desdemona, Salsa promotes further subplots in the play to highlight a love triangle with Rodrigo as well as Desdemona’s family drama with her father. disapproving.
As a larger driving force in the plot, Rodrigo also gets the lion’s share of the work’s most spectacular coloratura centerpieces, performed here by Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee eagerly embraced this more substantial Rodrigo, replacing the play’s familiar dissolute suitor with a festering man in deep disdain for the romantic opportunity Otello took from him. This culminates in the second-act centerpiece “Che Ascolto?” a short, full scene for aggrieved tenor that allowed Brownlee to demonstrate all the hallmarks of his craft, from beautiful long-breath lines to spitfire coloratura and a generous display of irresistible golden high notes.
Greater focus on Rodrigo’s grievances leaves Iago in a somewhat redundant role, where he’s not driven by existential hatred for his fellow man, but by the lingering pain of having also been rejected by Desdemona at some point. . Alek Shrader brought an appealing sound to Iago but struggled to make an impression in the many duets where the character could break through in the absence of dedicated solos.
The focus on Rodrigo also means that the character of Otello, sung here by South African tenor Khanyiso Gwexane in his US debut, is slow to come into focus. Gwexane’s voice is light and flexible enough for Rossini, but had enough weight to provide dramatic color and a grounded but still ringing top. His sound complemented Brownlee’s beautifully in their thrilling confrontational duet in Act II (“Ah vieni”).
The first two acts of Otello, however, give little clue as to what Rossini has in store for the character and the broader treatment of Act III, as the mostly conventional format thus far gives way to a very different dramatic approach. The final act features long, dramatic monologues for Desdemona and Otello, followed by a stunning confrontation and murder scene. Accompanied by a tumultuous score full of tempestuous effects which seems to allude to the finale of Rigoletto, Gwexane made a big deal out of this scene, effectively playing up the poignant moments of Otello’s monologue as well as the terror of his crime.
Of all the tenors, however, it is ultimately Desdemona who emerges as the work’s most complete character. Desdemona’s grief here is the product not only of Otello’s jealousy, but also of Rodrigo’s annoyance and his father’s disappointment. If his suffering under so much conspiracy is a little more difficult to follow, it is no less acute.
Daniela Mack delivered a superb turn as the doomed wife, her rich and incisive mezzo effectively handling the varied vocal demands of the role, from the heavy dramatic writing in the Act II finale and final showdown scene to skilfully distributed moments of coloratura and an exquisite reading of Rossini’s own version of the “Willow Song”.
Mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce brought a bright and appealing sound to Desdemona’s maid, Emilia, especially in a warm duet with Desdemona. Christian Pursell’s middleweight bass-baritone pleased the music of Desdemona’s father, Emilio, while casting a younger vocalist as this authority figure sacrificed verisimilitude in the bossy father-daughter dynamic vulnerable.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris led the Philadelphia Opera Orchestra in a largely satisfying reading of Rossini’s score, deftly alternating between Rossini’s light, fast music and heavier material, and building thrilling climaxes in Acts I and II. Tempi throughout was quick but with space for the drama to unfold, although the energy seemed to wane in some of the extended exposition scenes.
The score offers plenty of opportunities for exposed solos, showcasing the beautiful woodwork but some challenges in the brass. The Philadelphia Opera Chorus, prepared by Elizabeth Braden, provided raucous support in the extensive choral writing that underlies a number of ensemble scenes.
The production, originating from Liège and directed by Emilio Sagi, updates the action at the beginning of the 20e century, but largely leaves additional information about this choice to the public. The scenography, signed Daniel Bianco, places the action in a single large period room entirely painted in monochrome and subtly lit by Eduardo Bravo. There was an austerity here that married well with tragedy at times. Still it also became tiring after the three hours of opera and shaken up in Act III, when Desdemona’s bedroom at night seemed to be playing in the same generic late-afternoon lighting from the previous act.
otello through October 2 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. operaphila.org