A rare and splendid Otello at Opera Philadelphia

Although retired since 2014, I still relish opportunities to teach, write, and share opinions.
Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O22 now showcases Rossini’s Otello at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia until October 2. It’s a winner, and if you are an opera lover, absolutely not to be missed.
 
Many may have never heard of this 1816 treatment of the Shakespearean tragedy since Verdi’s towering achievement in treating it in 1887 eclipsed earlier versions. Rossini’s Otello requires three excellent tenors, which is next to impossible in today’s opera world, but Opera Philadelphia achieved this goal with their three tenors.The celebrated international star Lawrence Brownlee was a vocally outstanding Rodrigo, a noble swain intoxicated by Desdemona, who in her turn idolizes the military hero Otello, here sung by Khanyiso Gwenxane in what can be called his first starring role. Alek Shrader as Iago completed the tenor triad. Mr. Shrader previously appeared with the company in two triumphs, Semele in 2019, and La Traviata in 2015. 
 
Desdemona here is not only the love object of Rodrigo, but Iago as well, along with Otello! She is as irresistible as catnip to a cat as far as young beauties go. Daniela Mack is lustrous and captivating as Desdemona. Since her outstanding appearances in Opera Philadelphia’s Semele, Carmen, and Elizabeth Cree, Ms. Mack has become an international star. She is a bel canto superstar who appeared to have no limitations in her fearless singing.
 
A great and welcome surprise was bass-baritone Christian Pursell as Elmiro, Desdemona’s hot daddy. The minute Elmiro began singing, the hall was lit by his vocal incandescent fire. Elmiro became impossible to ignore even for a second, so galvanizing was his big-daddy energy onstage. Being young, tall, dark, and handsome definitely made an impression along with the beauty of his voice. Do return, Mr. Pursell. Philadelphia needs you.
 
The rest of the cast was strong. Sun-ly Pierce was a plangent and well-acted Emilia. Aaron Crouch and Daniel Taylor were fine.
 
The Orchestra was led with fierceness and joy by the magic baton of conductor Corrado Rovaris. Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden can add this to her triumphs. 
 
The set design was beautiful, and not what we would associate with the Isle of Cyprus. Rather, it looked more at home in Denmark, since the raging storm alluded to in the opera was a heavy snowfall which added an eerie lightness and freshness to the opera. Bravo to the Belgian Opera who created the production. It can be reused seamlessly in Der Rosenkavalier, and other operas, if need be.
 
According to the notes, the opera is set in the 1920s. Many may have thought it was the 1860s. We have what appears to be oil lamps on tables, while Otello later carries a flashlight. We are also told that a gondolier is singing in the lagoon, in winter, no less. Of course, Desdemona is dispatched in total darkness during a fierce storm with thunder and lightning.
 
Citizens appear and disappear seemingly en masse, as do servants who only appear when crowds enter, but are nowhere to be seen when Rodrigo, then later, Otello, is screaming at, chasing, and manhandling Desdemona around the ballroom and stairs.
 
Rossini’s Otello, at over three hours, has perhaps thirty minutes which can be pruned to make it a tighter drama, but many would shriek when the music is also lost. 
 
Otello will be gone before you know it, so get your tickets today.
 
Festival O will continue with a few more performances of Otello, then continue with Black Lodge, and films, performances, and a choral concert. For information, visit: www.operaphila.org
 

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