`Otello,’ Rossini’s not Verdi’s, staged in Philadelphia

Sep 26, 2022, 7:54 AM | Updated: 8:10 am

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Rossini’s “Otello” premiered in 1816, and the musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play was a hit for seven decades. Then Verdi’s version debuted in 1887 and was acclaimed as a pinnacle of the art form, causing Rossini’s version to recede into a rarity.

Opera Philadelphia excavated 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 is such a modern opera,” said Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris, who is conducting the run. “It was a great success. It was played everywhere, performed everywhere. All the big singers wanted to sing that opera.”

With three tenor roles — Brownlee as Rodrigo, Khanyiso Gwenxane as Otello in his U.S. debut and Alek Shrader as Iago — Rossini’s version isn’t easy to cast. There is the additional 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 the Austria’s Theatre an der Wien but said he was dropped because the director could not envision a Black Rodrigo.

“I’m finally getting the chance to sing this role that I’ve always wanted to sing that has been a limitation because of my color,” Brownlee said. “You’ve seen musical theater show and represent much more openness to cast people in roles that were I guess historically considered Caucasian, even though maybe some of them didn’t necessarily say specific Caucasian man or Caucasian woman. Opera is trying to catch up. And the thing that I appreciate about Opera Philadelphia is they have really doubled down on their commitment to diverse casting, to make sure that the stage looks like a representation of the people in the city.”

Verdi may have attended the Rossini version at Milan’s Teatro all Scala during the 1834-35 season, according to Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s “Verdi: A Biography.” During an 1878 dinner in Milan with music editor Giulio Ricordi, Verdi said the conversation turned to a discussion of Francesco Berio di Salsa’s libretto for Rossini, which they deemed undramatic and unsatisfactory. Within days, Arrigo Boito started sketching a libretto for Verdi, a letter between the two recalled.

Shakespeare set “Othello” in Venice and on Cyprus, while Berio di Salsa put the action entirely in Venice. Boito focused on Iago’s evil and disruption of Otello’s marriage to Desdemona, with a stolen handkerchief a key dramatic device, while Berio di Salsa portrayed a love triangle among Otello, Rodrigo and Desdemona, the plot turning on a letter with a lock of hair.

Rossini drops Cassio entirely. More known for his comic operas than his dramas, Rossini composed “Otello” as his first three-act work.

“Initially I had a little trouble with how from an acting standpoint, how Desdemona is continuously beaten down and pushed around and squashed by virtually every man that is on stage with her,” said mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who sings the female lead and in real life is married to Shrader. “It comes from her father. It comes from Rodrigo, to a lesser extent, but it certainly does, and from Otello ultimately. I had in my mind this couple was very much in love and has shared this mutual passion. It’s not at all like Romeo and Juliet. There’s an intrinsic violence in their relationship from the get-go.”

The last major U.S. production of the Rossini version had been at the San Francisco Opera in 1994, though there were concert and small-company versions, including Brooklyn’s LoftOpera in 2017.

Rovaris, music director since 2005, led Verdi’s version in Philadelphia in 2010. He first conducted the Rossini at the 1998 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, with the assistance of Rossini scholar Alberto Zedda and musicologist Philip Gossett. He led another staging in 2010 at Switzerland’s Lausanne Opera.

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

This staging by Emilio Sagi, with a single set in whites and grays by Daniel Bianc and costumes seemingly from the 1920s by Gabriela Salaverri, debuted at Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège last December and was set in a mansion that appeared more appropriate to Germany or Switzerland than Venice.

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

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Ozzy Osbourne arrives at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on Jan. 26, 202...
Associated Press

Ozzy Osbourne cancels 2023 European tour dates, cites injury

Hard rock legend Ozzy Osbourne announced the cancellation of his 2023 tour dates in the U.K. and continental Europe. Osbourne issued a statement early Wednesday saying damage to his spine suffered in an accident four years ago will prevent him from touring. “I am honestly humbled by the way you’ve all patiently held onto your […]
2 hours ago
A view of a placard as ambulance workers stand on the picket line outside Leeds Ambulance Station i...
Associated Press

Day of disruption in UK as thousands join mass walkout

LONDON (AP) — Thousands of schools in the U.K. are closing some or all of their classrooms, train services will be paralyzed and delays are expected at airports Wednesday in what’s shaping up to be the biggest day of industrial action Britain has seen in more than a decade, as unions step up pressure on […]
2 hours ago
Currency traders watch computer monitors at a foreign exchange dealing room in Seoul, South Korea, ...
Associated Press

Global stocks higher ahead of Fed rate decision

BEIJING (AP) — Global stocks rose Wednesday while Wall Street futures declined ahead of what traders hope will be the last Federal Reserve interest rate hike for some time. London and Frankfurt opened hire. Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong advanced. Oil prices gained. Traders expect the Fed to raise its benchmark lending rate but hope […]
1 day ago
FILE - Abortion-rights protesters project messages to a building during an event sponsored by Susan...
Associated Press

Anti-abortion activists aim to sway GOP White House hopefuls

CHICAGO (AP) — Emboldened anti-abortion activists are looking to the 2024 presidential election as an opportunity to solidify their influence over the Republican Party. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, the most influential group in the anti-abortion movement, is telling each potential GOP presidential hopeful that to win its backing — or avoid being a target […]
1 day ago
FILE - Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022...
Associated Press

Powell likely to stress Fed’s inflation fight far from over

WASHINGTON (AP) — Inflation is cooling, and parts of the economy appear to be weakening. But Chair Jerome Powell is likely Wednesday to underscore that the Federal Reserve’s primary focus remains the need to fight surging prices with still-higher interest rates. With financial markets anticipating that the Fed will stop raising rates soon and possibly […]
1 day ago
Containers are seen at the country's largest port, in Busan, South Korea, on Jan. 10, 2023. South K...
Associated Press

South Korea logs record trade deficit as tech demand falls

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea logged its biggest monthly trade deficit ever, at $12.7 billion in January, as exports of computer chips and other high-tech items sank and costs for importing oil and gas surged, the trade ministry said Wednesday. The growing shortfall underscored how Russia’s war on Ukraine is straining the global […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet can improve everyday life

Quantum Fiber supplies unlimited data with speeds up to 940 mbps, enough to share 4K videos with coworkers 20 times faster than a cable.
`Otello,’ Rossini’s not Verdi’s, staged in Philadelphia