Vocal Olympics with a plot. And a lot of conspiracy

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Time and again, encounters with Rossini’s Otello raise the question: is everyone in this opera a tenor? Except Desdemona?

It was a legitimate question during my only live encounter with this rarely performed piece (2017 at the Loft Opera in Brooklyn), but less so during the Philadelphia Opera’s Sunday afternoon performance at the Academy of Music. The three main tenors — Khanyiso Gwenxane as Otello, Lawrence Brownlee as Rodrigo, and Alek Shrader as Iago — were individualistic, well-chiselled voices in this classic tale of a great military general destroyed by the jealousy of newlyweds. No voice seemed superfluous.

As the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Opera’s O22 Festival, Emilio Sagi’s production imported from the Royal Opera of Wallonia in Belgium offered a chance to hear Rossini’s alternative to Verdi’s more famous Otello in a beautiful production in black, white and gray updated in the 1920s with a generally capable cast. With musical director Corrado Rovaris showing an orchestra and choir in excellent shape, you had a clear idea of ​​what opera is and is not.

Admittedly, it’s epic – three lively hours, but best heard by those who already know the playing field of this 200-year-old piece that doesn’t always cross the centuries. The composer knocked out 34 operas in 13 years during the period Otello was written. Although the first two acts are standard and above-average Rossini, the words say one thing and the music sometimes expresses another. It was a period of dramaturgy where storytelling was sometimes secondary to Olympic-level singing opportunities. But Act III – Otello’s murder of Desdemona – departs from standard operatic formulas in a chilling portrayal of obsession that takes on a pity-defying momentum. Murder has become inevitable.

READ MORE: Most opera houses are blessed with a star tenor. The Philadelphia Opera House’s ‘Otello’ has three.

This act is the main reason for reviving the play, and it’s what the Philadelphia Opera House cast seemed headed towards. The first two acts demand such a flowery vocal display; Soprano Beverly Sills once described this kind of opera as having notes so high even a dog can’t hear them. As good as they were in Act III, South African tenor Gwenxane, in her US debut, and mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, as Desdemona, missed intricate details that may be so exciting earlier in the opera, and even the broad strokes were sometimes unruly.

Only Brownlee (a Rossini specialist) conveyed the incredible vocal athleticism this music was written for, and did so with an idea of ​​what it all might mean dramatically. Shrader’s Iago went even further in this regard. The fact that some listeners whistled at him during his encore was a compliment to how perverted he was. The ensemble passages between the tenors were also a treat: because their voices were so different that they had to reach out to find common vocal ground. With that came a welcome dramatic tension. Bass-baritone Christian Pursell as Desdemona’s father didn’t get off easy and, like Gwenxane, sounded seriously promising but a bit unfinished vocally.

Footnote: Rossini actually wrote an alternative happy ending to this opera, where everyone lives. It’s definitely worth hearing, surprisingly enough.

Otello is repeated on September 30 and October 2 at the Academy of Music. Tickets: $25 to $299. Information: www.operphila.org215-732-8400.

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