Clowning around with Gaetano Donizetti

Classical Music Critic

What: “Il Pigmalione” and “Rita”
Where: The Studebaker Theater
When: Through Apr. 22
Tickets: 312-704-8414

Chicago Opera Theater is closing out the 2017-18 season with a double bill of rarely performed short operas by Gaetano Donizetti. “Il Pigmalione” is the composer’s first opera, written when he was a student and only 19, while “Rita” is one of his last works. Neither was ever performed during Donizetti’s lifetime.

These two operas are not only from vastly different periods in the composer’s productive life, they are also very different in mood and music. “Pigmalione,” based on the Pygmalion story, is a brief yet heated melodrama, while “Rita” is out-and-out comedy. They may not really be well suited as a double bill with overlapping casts, but the Chicago Opera Theater performances are thoughtful and engaging with “Rita” coming off as deliciously hilarious.

“Rita” is essentially a three-character piece (here infused with lots of subsidiary action by nonspeaking characters). Rita is an overbearing woman who constantly orders her second husband Beppe about and is not immune from knocking him about when things go wrong. Beppe learns that she may be prone to hit him because her first husband, before he died at sea, beat her. Beppe discovers this from the horse’s mouth, when Gasparo turns up, having survived the shipwreck which all thought had led to his demise.

For his part, Gasparo believed that Rita died in a fire and he has returned to the town where he and his wife had lived to obtain proof of her death so he can marry again.

When they discover the other’s identity, Beppe and Gasparo argue over who will have to stay with Rita. Neither has the least inclination to do so.

While there’s fine comedy here, the underlying element of spousal abuse is a creepy one which makes the going rather awkward in the beginning. But director Amy Hutchison has found a way to make this work. She mines the work for all its humor, gives the flights of fancy a dream-like, Fellini inspired sense of unreality, and ensures that the appalling Gasparo gets his comeuppance at the end.

The result is an uproariously funny, even heart-warming, look at why the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. Beppe and Rita reconcile and the opera ends with smiles.

The overwhelming success of “Rita” comes from all angles, beginning with three fine portrayals. Soprano Angela Mortellaro, in the title role, has strutting stuff and a powerful voice. While she tends to be rather brittle and forced at the very top, she has a commanding middle register, fine phrasing, and a glittering stage presence.

Tenor Javier Abreu is scrumptious as the inept but good-hearted Beppe. This buffo Beppe is a comic marvel whether he’s speaking, singing, or silently making mischief, and his realization of his true affection for Rita is convincing and satisfying.

Baritone Keith Phares as first husband Gasparo is well realized. He is suave and completely unaware of either his chauvinism or his callousness. His gloriously smooth singing makes us believe a woman could fall for him, but only at her peril.

Adding to all the fun is the insertion into the action of a handful of clowns doing a modern take on commedia dell’arte. When I learned there would be genuine clowns in the production, I thought, “OMG, this has got to be terrible!” It is easy to be wrong, but it is rare to be wrong and love that you are. Adrian Danzig, known for his “500 Clown” performances, is highlighted in the program as “director of clowning” and has found just the right degree of silliness. Hutchison appears to have given him full rein in a few segments of the opera and the results are spectacular. A dreamy sequence which finds, among other things, Beppe flying an airplane made up of a ladder and a couple of clowns, is one of the many highlights of the production.

The piece is sung in Italian with the spoken sections in English. Some of the spoken jokes are feeble (and worse, often repeated), but the physical humor is top notch. The appearance of a genuine red Vespa driven on stage is just one little example of the special touches in this production.

Hutchison has taken a rarely-performed work with some questionable plot points and turned it into something which modern audiences can not merely understand on its own merits, but embrace as a modern morality tale with the correct lesson learned. Brava!

The first opera on the program is “Il Pigmalione.” It is just under 40 minutes, over 30 of which only a single character sings (again Abreu, this time as the title artist who falls in love with the woman in his own art).

It is delightful to hear Donizetti’s early work and realize his gift for melody and musical inspiration was present from the beginning. Yet “Pigmalione” simply doesn’t come off as a true opera. A single voice expressing essentially a single idea can be lovely, but it seems more like a concert piece than anything else.

The artist’s garret is beautifully done and the “chiaroscuro of Italian neorealist cinema,” as described in the director’s notes, is very effective. But the drama is hard to maintain, even when the object of the artist’s love comes to life. Mortellaro, before she is Rita, is a winning Galatea.

Presiding over a 29-piece orchestra, Francesco Milioto is splendid from start to finish. The sound from the pit was idiomatic, well-paced, and full of attention to detail.