« Otello », Rossini is not by Verdi, staged in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Rossini’s « Otello » premiered in 1816, and the musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play has been a hit for seven decades. Then Verdi’s version debuted in 1887 and was hailed as the pinnacle of the art form, pushing Rossini’s version back into a rarity.

The Philadelphia Opera House searched it Friday night at the Academy of Music for its O22 festival in a showcase for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, the company’s artistic adviser.

« If you put it in the context of a year it was written, it’s such a modern opera, » said Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris, who is leading the run. « It was a great success. It was played everywhere, performed everywhere. All the great singers wanted to sing this opera.

With three tenor roles – Brownlee in Rodrigo, Khanyiso Gwenxane in Otello in his US debut, and Alek Shrader in Iago – Rossini’s version isn’t easy to cast. There is the added element of race: Shakespeare based « Othello » on Cinthio’s short story « Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain) ». Brownlee, a 49-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio, and Gwenxane are both black. Brownlee was to have sung Rodrigo in a 2016 production at Austria’s Theater an der Wien, but said it was dropped because the director could not imagine a Black Rodrigo.

« I finally get the chance to sing this role that I’ve always wanted to sing and that was a limitation because of my color, » Brownlee said. « You’ve seen musical theater performances and represent a lot more openness to engaging people in roles that were, I guess, historically considered Caucasian, although maybe some of them didn’t necessarily say a specific Caucasian man or woman. Opera is trying to catch up. And what I appreciate about the Philadelphia Opera is that they really doubled down on their commitment to a diverse cast, to make sure the stage felt like a representation of the people of the city.

Verdi may have attended Rossini’s version at the Teatro all Scala in Milan during the 1834-1835 season, according to « Verdi: A Biography » by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. At an 1878 dinner in Milan with music publisher Giulio Ricordi, Verdi said the conversation turned to a discussion of Francesco Berio di Salsa’s libretto for Rossini, which they found undramatic and unsatisfactory . Within days, Arrigo Boito began sketching a libretto for Verdi, a letter between the two recalled.

Shakespeare set « Othello » in Venice and Cyprus, while Berio di Salsa set the action entirely in Venice. Boito focused on Iago’s hurt and the disruption of Otello’s marriage to Desdemona, with a stolen handkerchief a key dramatic device, while Berio di Salsa depicted a love triangle between Otello, Rodrigo and Desdemona, the plot turning on a letter with a lock of hair.

Rossini completely drops Cassio. Better known for his comic operas than his dramas, Rossini composed « Otello » as his first three-act work.

« At first, I had a bit of a hard time understanding how, from an actor’s perspective, how Desdemona is continually beaten, shoved and run over by virtually every male that is on stage with her, » the actress said. mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who sings the female lead and in real life is married to Shrader. « It comes from his father. It comes from Rodrigo, to a lesser extent, but it certainly is, and from Otello finally. I had in mind this couple who were very much in love and who shared this mutual passion. This is not at all like Romeo and Juliet.There is an inherent violence in their relationship from the start.

The last major American production of the Rossini version was at the San Francisco Opera in 1994, although there have been concert and small company versions, including Brooklyn’s LoftOpera in 2017.

Rovaris, musical director since 2005, conducted Verdi’s version in Philadelphia in 2010. He first conducted the Rossini at the 1998 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, with the help of Rossini scholar Alberto Zedda and musicologist Phillip Gossett. He directed another production in 2010 at the Opéra de Lausanne in Switzerland.

“It was very interesting for me to find in my scores all the ornamentation that we put together with Philip Gossett when we did it in Pesaro,” Rovaris said.

This production by Emilio Sagi, with a unique white and gray set by Daniel Bianc and apparently 1920s costumes by Gabriela Salaverri, debuted at Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège last December and took place in a mansion that seemed more appropriate to Germany or Switzerland than Venice.

The annual Philadelphia festival, launched in 2017, returns this season after missing two years due to the pandemic. There are more than 40 events from September 21 to October 2, including the world premiere of David T. Little’s « Black Lodge » and a new production of Toshio Hosokawa’s « The Raven, » based on the 1845 poem by Edgar Allan Poe.


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