Rossini’s Rare ‘Otello’ Glitters As Vocal Gold, But The Staging Is Gray

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Lawrence Brownlee as Rodrigo in Rossini’s ‘Otello,’ part of Festival O22 at Opera Philadelphia. (Photos by Steven Pisano)’

PHILADELPHIA — Conventional wisdom has it that Rossini’s Otello (1816) is rarely performed due to its requirement of six tenors, at least three of whom must specialize in high-lying coloratura.

But as evidenced by Opera Philadelphia’s opening-night performance Sept. 23 of a four-performance run at the ornate Academy of Music, there’s another reason for Otello’s relative neglect. Due to Rossini’s frequent borrowing of arias and ensembles from earlier, more obscure operas, he failed to imbue much of the music with emotional significance. The score may demand that singers run up and down the scale more frequently than a hamster runs round and round the wheel in its cage. But three hours after the curtain had risen, it was hard to leave the theater without asking what purpose beyond sheer visceral thrills the seemingly non-stop barrage of notes had served.

This is not to deny the performance’s many strengths. The vocalism was thrilling, especially when debuting South African tenor Khanyiso Gwenxane (Otello) and American master Lawrence Brownlee (Rodrigo) got going, either in solo arias or ensembles. But their achievements in Otello’s florid music would have shown at least as well in an evening of opera excerpts that dispensed with mounds of uninvolving runs and roulades.

In Philadelphia, Emilio Sagi’s production bore at least some responsibility for the tedium. Sagi transposed all three acts (performed as two) to Europe after the First World War. Everything takes place on the same unremittingly off-white and gray set. The dismal color palette extends to the costumes and to the backdrop of a landscape that appears either covered in snow or so unremarkable as to render nature monotonal black and white. In one act, gray and black cloths draped furniture. Daniel Bianco’s uninspiring set was in direct contradiction to a score that demands a plethora of bel canto vocal color and phrase shaping from its singers.

Khanyiso Gwenxane, center, as Otello with tenor Colin Doyle as the Doge and members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus in Rossini’s ‘Otello’ at Opera Philadelphia.

Although the production was not created for the ornate stage of the Academy of Music, the apparent lack of a backdrop that would reflect sound beyond the proscenium had a detrimental effect. To these ears, the only time the vocal brilliance of Philadelphia’s outstanding cast projected to row J of the orchestra was when singers moved close to the front of the proscenium in the final act. Otherwise, the leading edge and high overtones of trained voices were swallowed up by the fly space above the stage, with midrange and undertones predominating. It sounded as if a lid had been put over the proceedings.

In the program notes (which I thankfully read after the performance), Sagi claims that Otello is “an exercise in critical thought about a bourgeois society, with schematic approaches that lead to a clear, didactic end. It seeks to denounce the corruption, classism, racism and cynicism of public life in a bourgeois society, at times melodramatically.” Melodramatic? Yes, to the core. Rife with racist attitudes, as explicitly verbalized in Francesco Berio de Salsa’s untrue-to-Shakespeare libretto? Absolutely. A potentially chilling depiction of how men manipulate, dominate, and seek to control women from morning to night? Yes. But an intentional and scathing denunciation of bourgeois values, expressed through the musical equivalent of chariot races in the Roman Coliseum? Hardly. Let’s not forget that for one production, Rossini produced an alternate happy ending to appease public preference. That’s the equivalent of denouncing classism while putting down cash for a mansion on Billionaire’s Row.

Alek Shrader as Iago.

Ultimately, Sagi couldn’t think of much more to do than allow everyone to sing in place, with minimal potentially distracting movement back and forth. His reductio ad absurdum moment came at the end of Act I, when soloists and chorus held their ground while Iago (Alek Shrader) endlessly paced back and forth, looking like a Scarpia who couldn’t figure out what to do until the very end, when he attempted to project an evil “Aha” moment. It was preposterous.

Best, then, to focus on the singing. Brownlee, for whom Philadelphia mounted Otello, was, as expected, astounding. Although he ascended to the apparent top of his range only once, every note was a thing of beauty. Striking a consistent pose of anguish until the very end, he dazzled repeatedly with his vocal generosity. It was gratifying to again be in the presence of one of the vocal greats of our age.

After a tonally unremarkable start, the far taller Gwenxane quickly came into his own. His tone is more complex than Brownlee’s, with a baritonal cast and classically masculine heft that convinced in militant passages. His superbly sung final bravura aria was a high point of the evening and declared him an artist from whom I expect we’ll hear frequently on major stages.

Daniela Mack as Desdemona with the Opera Philadelphia Chorus in ‘Otello.’

Among other male singers, bass-baritone Christian Pursell (Elmiro) made an equally impressive Opera Philadelphia debut. The voice is strong and beautiful and imposing in its range. Pursell may not sound as malevolent as some of his predecessors in the role, but he was the only singer whose brutal actions made my blood boil. That he was allowed to manhandle his daughter in front of everyone, and display an arrogance that resembles that of a certain orange-haired misogynist of the present day, was the only time the opera seemed relevant.

The only two women onstage, mezzo-sopranos Daniela Mack (Desdemona) and Sun-Ly Pierce (Emilia), also possessed strong voices. Mack, whose vocal brilliance shone only once, when she moved to the front of the stage, was fine with coloratura as written, but bel canto embellishment, subtle shading, and emotional variation did not seem to be her forte. Save for two half-screamed top notes, she sounded wonderful, but she failed to make the coloratura of her final scene sound or feel significantly different from passages in Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa.” The second verse of her “Willow Song” was more of the same and did not touch the heart.

Desdemona (Daniela Mack) and Otello (Khanyiso Gwenxane).

Pierce, in her Opera Philadelphia debut, sounded lighter and quite lovely. It’s hard to imagine her as Donna Elvira, a role she recently sang in Aspen, but perhaps there’s more to her voice than the role of Emelia allowed. Regardless, hers is a voice and presence I’d love to encounter again in meatier parts.

In smaller roles, Shrader, Aaron Crouch (Gondolier), Daniel Taylor (Lucio), and the light and sweet-voiced Colin Doyle (Doge) sang uniformly well. Elizabeth Braden’s chorus was excellent, but Corrado Rovaris’ conducting adequate and unmemorable. Eduardo Bravo’s lighting design and Gabriela Salaverri’s costuming were as undistinguished as Bianco’s set. Whoever decided to insert electronic thunder into the final act only served to heighten the melodramatic nature of the opera and Rossini’s failure to whip up a storm worth writing about.