Seasoned operagoers are very familiar with Gaetano Donizetti, although most have only seen a paltry number of his works including the likes of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “Anna Bolena” and “La Fille du Régiment.”
Donizetti is known as opera’s most prolific popular composer with over 70 operas to his name with many providing fertile unexplored territory. The innovative Chicago Opera Theater has forged an identity of pushing opera’s boundaries and wouldn’t normally be associated with such a recognizable figure. Yet it added to that ground-breaking reputation while also paying tribute to one of the giants of the opera world with its unique bel canto double bill of rarely performed works by the Italian, “Il Pigmalione” and “Rita,” that opened this weekend.
Two Different Animals
The works contrast in many ways. “Il Pigmalione” is Donizetti’s first opera while “Rita” is one of his last. The former is opera seria while the latter is commedia dell’arte. Each is one act, although not a whole lot of action happens in “Il Pigmalione,” while perhaps way too much takes place in “Rita.”
If they work as a pair, it’s not so much the individual quality of each opera as much as how together they reveal the evolution of the composer. Neither was performed in his lifetime. The oddity is that “Il Pigmalione” was first seen in 1960 in his birthplace of Bergamo while 100 years earlier, “Rita” was first performed in Paris in a performance taking place 12 years after Donizetti’s death.
“Il Pigmalione” was composed when he was 19-years-old and written in six days (!). He created Rita 25 years later when he was firmly established throughout the continent.
The Forerunner to Success
“Il Pigmalione” is based on the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with his sculptures. The story of Pygmalion by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the sources for the libretto, whose author is unknown.
It’s about 40-minutes long and consists of sculptor Pigmalione, portrayed by tenor Javier Abreu, alone on stage for the bulk of the performance pining for his creations.
While Abreu accurately conveyed the madness and mania of his character, much of what he sang became repetitive. Maybe there’s a reason the librettist is unnamed since the text is somewhat banal and meandering.
That’s not to say that the performance didn’t have merit in other ways. The set design by William Boles under the guidance of director Amy Hutchison for Pigmalione’s studio featured a projection screen that showcased Italian neorealist cinema and brought vibrancy where the words could not. The music demonstrated hints of the style that Donizetti would become synonymous with and was performed with aplomb by maestro Francesco Milioto and his orchestra.
Overall, “Il Pigmalione” is about what you would expect from a 19-year-old composer and it only came to life a bit when Pigmalione’s sculpture Galatea came to life in the person of soprano Angela Mortellaro.
Send in the Clowns
Something unusual and interesting happened during intermission. During the set change for “Rita,” a pair of clowns were onstage providing entertainment. This all made sense once the second part of the double-bill began.
“Rita” is a comic opera about two men and a woman. The spin on this “love triangle” is that both men want nothing to do with Rita upon this chance reunion set in a café on the Italian coast in the 1950s.
Chicago Opera Theater added some twists to the proceedings. The original version of the opera is in French, although it is now mostly performed in Italian. While this performance was sung in Italian, the spoken dialogue was made more accessible in English as the performers humorously broke the third wall to talk to the audience.
The clowns grew to four and were omnipresent with sight gags and hi-jinks that were hilarious throughout. It was all under the guidance of the ‘Director of Clowning’ Adrian Danzig, who received a bigger bio in the program than anyone else and rightfully so. The clowns were a perfect complement to the principals.
The singers from “Il Pigmalione” comprised two-thirds of the Rita cast. Abreu was Beppe, the current husband of Rita who is tired of being beaten by her. Mortellaro was Rita, while baritone Keith Phares was Gasparo, previously married to her and thought to be dead at sea.
These performers were said to be handpicked for these roles by Milioto and it was hard to imagine better casting. Abreu was simply the star of the night, partly because of the physical demands his role had in contrast to the others. The Puerto Rican had to climb down from the balcony in the opening moments and later sang while “flying” in a scene you have to see in person to appreciate.
If the material in “Il Pigmalione” did him no favors, Abreu flourished in Rita with his bel canto singing and hysterical facial expressions of a henpecked husband. His stage presence lit up the auditorium.
Mortellaro, who only briefly appeared in “Il Pigmalione,” was a commanding Rita. She looked convincing as a stereotypical, dark-haired Italian beauty that men fall in love with while simultaneously sweetly delivering domineering words that showed why these same men desired to leave her. There’s not a moment when she is around that you don’t realize that she is on stage.
Phares’ Gasparo is more of an alpha male to Abreu’s Beppe and his panache brought a different energy to the show. The baritone provided one of the night’s best moments when he broke into verse by another Italian composer (you can guess who) in a scene that includes a spoken line by someone outside the aforementioned trio in a hysterical surprise.
Such gags were in spirit with this opera and were proof that the Chicago Opera Theater doesn’t alaways take itself too seriously. Yet this was serious fun and a worthy homage to Donizetti with kudos to Hutchison, Danzig and the creative team on this lively and witty production.