Verdi’s Otello may be the Mount Everest of tenor roles, but Rossini’s rendering of the Shakespearean tragedy is the Mount Rushmore. A successful production requires no fewer than three world-class tenor powerhouses – and up to six – which impedes its inclusion in the standard repertory. It’s unlikely that Opera Philadelphia would have programmed this bel canto rarity were it not for Lawrence Brownlee, their longtime artistic partner and one of the few active tenors with the beauty and brawn to carry the fiendishly difficult demands of the piece across the finish line. As the anchor event of the company’s Festival O22, Brownlee headlines a staging at once vocally resplendent and dramatically torpid.

Khanyiso Gwenxane (Otello), Colin Doyle (Doge) and the Opera Philadelphia Chorus
© Steven Pisano

Rossini and his librettist Francesco Berio de Salsa departed significantly from the source text, placing the relatively minor character of Rodrigo at the center of the action. He views himself as the rightful recipient of Desdemona’s love, even after he learns that she has secretly married the African war hero Otello against her father’s wishes. Spurned, Rodrigo plots with Iago – here a strictly malevolent stock character, with none of the psychological underpinnings provided by Shakespeare or Boito – to hasten the Moor’s downfall, but he instead initiates a chain reaction of carnage. Yet Rodrigo, left alive at the end, is the only figure in the action who escapes relatively unscathed.

Lawrence Brownlee (Rodrigo) and the Opera Philadelphia Chorus
© Steven Pisano

Brownlee projected the attitude of a spoiled man-child throughout, intent on causing maximum harm when it becomes clear he won’t get his way. His petulant characterization contrasted nicely with the reserved and dignified bearing of Khanyiso Gwenxane’s Otello, a true tragic hero whose demise is caused by emotional manipulation rather than excessive pride. While theatrically well matched, Gwenxane’s attractive but often overparted tenor was no match for Brownlee’s tireless vocal dynamism, which led to occasional lapses in musical tension. The great duet “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue” wasn’t a fair fight: Brownlee seemed only to gain in color and dexterity as the passagework became more intricate, while Gwenxane’s volume and flexibility began to flag. Still, the South African–born, German-based singer – heard here in his American debut – is a name to remember.

Daniela Mack (Desdemona) and Khanyiso Gwenxane (Otello)
© Steven Pisano

A strong supporting cast matched Brownlee down the line, with a particularly headstrong characterization of Desdemona from Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. A company favorite, previously heard in Philadelphia as Carmen and in the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ Elizabeth Cree, she brought a haunting stillness and exquisitely sustained vocal line to Rossini’s version of the Willow Song. It was one of the few moments in Emilio Sagi’s generally static staging that felt rife with dramatic tension. The rising young singer Sun-Ly Pierce was wrenchingly sympathetic as the devoted Emilia.

Alek Shrader (Iago) and Khanyisa Gwenxane (Otello)
© Steven Pisano

Tenor Alek Shrader did his best to wrest Iago from one-dimensionality, suggesting ulterior motives for the character’s heinous acts beyond simply pure evil. His pliant tenor, always marvelously secure, has taken on a darker coloring that suited the role. Bass-baritone Christian Pursell made a memorable impression as Elmiro, Desdemona’s disapproving father, and tenor Aaron Crouch impressed as a particularly refulgent off-stage Gondolier. An Otello in the making, perhaps?

Corrado Rovaris, a master of bel canto snap, did his best to corral a sense of musical drama that was rarely present onstage. Sagi and his scenic designer, Daniel Bianco, have transported the action from the Mediterranean to a hulking manor house in the English countryside, with the characters dressed by Gabriela Salaverri in 1920s fashions. The choice makes little dramaturgical sense, and the immovability of the sets means that the action of the libretto must be retrofitted so that it all takes place in one location. The resulting melodrama drew a fair amount of guffaws at the performance I attended – especially when, upon learning of Otello and Desdemona’s deaths, Brownlee’s Rodrigo, plopped into a Louis XV chair and lit a cigarette.

A scene from Otello
© Steven Pisano

The staging seemed designed to produce striking stage pictures rather than any sense of forward momentum in the action. Luckily, Opera Philadelphia fielded a cast and conductor able to project the drama through music. And for Brownlee, the evening offered a worthy showcase for the one of the most sparkling singers alive.