On Sunday afternoon a monastic hush swept across the audience before Act II. At the precise moment the lights dimmed to their darkest, the voice of a three-year-old could be heard deliver a cheerful “Bye-byyeee,” that bounced around the theater in a crisp sharp F. The acoustics lifted her innocent exit all the way up to the chandelier. A quick applause of genuine fellowship followed from the audience; which, I believe was not for her unconscious precociousness, but for her innate and perfect sense of timing.*
When Corrado Rovaris returned to the podium likely curious about the early and then second applause, he encountered an audience and orchestra buoyed by a uniquely human moment. The Second Act responded with a fervidly thrilling performance.
I have the special delight of sharing this experience today with not just a precocious child, but with my friend Mike who I have occasionally run into at other Philadelphia operas. After a serindipitous encounter at Starbucks the other day he was gracious enough to agree to join me Sunday for Otello. Mike is an easy conversationalist and I always enjoy the chance to catch up. I am secretly jealous of his knack for languages and if he didn’t already know Italian I am convinced with just two weeks notice he’d have arrived for Otello fluent.
Rossinni’s Otello features three fluent tenors and a mezzo along with an orchestra whose woodwinds and flute have the opportunity to shine and for me they do under the baton of Rovaris. The tangling and untangling of harmony and melody the players and chorus brought to the first act finale was so fantastic it left me musing on the world of pedestrians walking by the flickering gas lamps and scaffolding of the Academy of Music having no idea what they might be missing inside. The poorer I think they are for missing it.
Lawrence Brownlee’s performance as Rodrigo was full-bodied reminding me of one of my favorite tenors, the steely voiced Javier Camarena; I love it. Considering how much voice time Rossini offers Rodrigo he should have just renamed Shakespeare’s famous play for him. Not to take anything away from the confident tenor of Khanyiso Gwenxane, but funnily Otello just isn’t given much to sing considering he is the title character. The styles of the tenors, including Colin Doyle’s rich timbre, complimented each other wonderfully and when Daniela Mack finally had her moments in this tenor-centric opera, the feminine grace stilled my heart, beautifully supported like entwined fingers by Sun-Ly Pierce who played Emelia.
A favorite moment for me is when the gondolier sings, maybe reminding me of my own trip the Venice. What kicks me is that he sings muffled off-stage There’s something about this stage device I always find appealing, whether the distance prompts an evocation of memory or the way it musically expands the fourth wall (I think of Violeta in bed while the revelers party beyond her window). In this case it’s all sumptuous bitter-sweet nostalgia. The gondolier, Aaron Crouch sings “Nessun maggior” He laments, “there is no greater pain than to remember a time of happiness when in misery.”
Along with the entrance of a harp the stage is set for Desdemona’s famous willow song (Assisa A Pie Dun Salice).** Here Daniel Mack brings her most intimate and inward expression pulling me forward in my seat soaked in the feelings of knowing something is loss, even when it is still in hand.
Overall this was an outstanding production with layers and layers to unravel.
Mike brought to my attention a more social perspective to the opera particularly the inequities faced by Otello. Otello a foreigner from Africa is able to access some stratum’s of society and thrive there as a leader, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships he is denied access. Unfortunately for Otello the hate and jealousy delivered by Iago, Rodrigo, and the Doge is echoed by Otello to fulfill their bias and prejudice against him.
The other societal inequity concerns Desdemona. Despite her qualities of loyalty and courage to marry Otello and challenge her societies conventions, she is denied true agency to create her own destiny and this societal inequity coupled by the other becomes the undoing of all the men who use her as an object to fulfill there own fantasies. Sadly Desdemona is also the victim of spousal abuse, another byproduct of her status in this patriarchal Venice.
The human failings that bring about the tragedy of Otello would not happen in a world where he and Desdemona were truly treated like equal citizens. Inequality is for sure the engine of this tragic plot.***
Despite the weight of material, this is Rossinni after all, the father of bel canto (beautiful singing) and the music is glorious, upbeat, melodic, and harmonious. Even when doing tragedy Rossinni is a breath of joy.
So What is Otello all about? Otello is a foreigner in Venice who shows great success on the battlefield for the Venetians. Along with winning over their hearts and minds with his loyalty and bravery he also wins the heart of Desdemona. However, Iago is jealous and misrepresents a letter from Desdemona saying it is for another lover, Rodrigo. This single act is followed by jealousy and worse…
Notes on the Production:
Composer…………………….. Giacomo Rossinni
Otello…………………………..…… Khanyiso Gwenxane
Desdemona………………..…… Daniela Mack
Rodrigo……………………………. Lawrence Brownlee
Iago………………………………….. Alek Shrader
Emilia………………………………. Sun-Ly Pierce
Elmira………………………………. Christian Pursell
Gondolier…………………………. Aaron Crouch
Lucio………………………………… Daniel Taylor
Colin Doyle……………………… The Doge
Conductor………………………… Corrado Rovaris
*This unscripted moment between acts for me underscores the humanity in this endeavor of Opera that brings so many together for the shared experience of live theater. It’s about being together; attentive and present to celebrate the spectrum of human emotion through the artistry of music.
*** Willow branches run downward like tears to fill rivers, a good proxy for grief. The willow song is recognizable in Both Rossini and Verdis’ Otello’s and is often performed as a stand alone piece.
“So far I found: Seated at a foot of a willow, immersed in grief, complained the hapless Isaura, about the most cruel love; the breeze amid the mournful boughs repeated the sound.
The lucid rills mixed her burning sighs with the murmur of its passing ways. The breeze amid the mournful boughs repeated the sound.
Willow of love’s joy ??? merciful shadow of my misfortune ??? at my sad urn, ??? the breeze repeats the sound of my laments”
**Art can be a powerful vehicle for society to have these conversations. The fiction gives us just enough distance to talk about things that otherwise might be too uncomfortable to face. I’m always thankful when these conversations are breached and opera companies address them, it would be irresponsible for them not to. However, as a counterpoint to these conversations I don’t believe it was Rossinni’s intent to make social commentary here and all should be
I believe for Rossini, Otello is a convenient drama to showcase his talent as a composer and musics power to express human feelings. A bottom up approach to Rossinni lets us marvel at his inventiveness in the orchestra and the beauty he provokes from the human voice and the more beautiful when harmonized.