Two one-act operas written 25 years apart. The first explores the longing for the ideal of beauty; the second deals with the repercussions of finding it. The Chicago Opera Theater’s ambitious double-bill staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s Il Pigmalione and Rita presents an “exploration of love, fantasy and the blurry lines between them.
“For our third and final production of the 2017/2018 season, Chicago Opera Theater brings two contrasting and complimentary Donizetti works to Chicago for the first time,” remarked General Director Douglas R. Clayton. “The two works have been theatrically combined to flow seamlessly together and highlight the progression of Donizetti’s musical artistry and his thoughts on themes of love and romance throughout his compositional career.”
Il Pigmalione is a 40-minute, one-act opera written by Donizetti in six days when he was 19 years old. It was his first opera and it is unlikely that it was ever performed publicly while he was alive. It tells the story of Pigmalione, played beautifully by Puerto Rican tenor, Javier Abreu, a sculptor/king who is convinced that he may never find the ideal of feminine beauty….so obsessed that he creates a sculpture of it for himself. Then he falls in love with his sculpture: “I am in love with my own work of art!” he declares. Today, he would be diagnosed with agalmatophilia, a paraphilia involving sexual attraction to a statue, doll, mannequin or other similar figurative object, and encouraged to see a therapist, but the gods answer his prayers and Pigmalione’s sculpture, now called Galatea, played by soprano Angela Mortellaro, is brought to life. He then must explain to her what love is. Abreu does most of the heavy lifting in this first half with an extensive solo and makes it look easy. The music is fresh and lively and feels familiar.
Rita is a 60-minute, one-act opera written by Donizetti in eight days at the end of his life. It was also not performed publicly until after his death. It consists of eight songs connected by spoken dialogue. Chicago Opera Theater’s staging is fun, complete with colorful costumes, a darling inn/café and even a working Vespa. The characters break the fourth wall and realizing that their audience is from Chicago (“Al Capone, right?”) cleverly change their spoken dialogue from Italian to English. In this opera, Mortellaro has transformed Galatea into Rita, the owner of an inn on the Italian coast in the 1950s. Think Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. Rita is beautiful, ambitious, self-reliant and often cruel to her second husband, Beppe, who adores her but is exhausted and overworked. Beppe is meant to show what happens after Pigmalione gets the beauty he so desperately desired: more than just a divine silent statue, his Rita is a real-life woman with real-life issues attached. She sings, “For love, the fool is best. Someday I will tell you why.” Because the opera is so short, we soon find out the reason why: her first husband, Gasparo, was not a fool, but was an abusive jerk. He proclaims, “I like to punish as much as I like to make love.” Gasparo, played by baritone Keith Phares, comes into town after having been presumed dead for years. He is seeking a death certificate for Rita so he can remarry and is surprised to learn that she is not dead. Beppe sees an opportunity to escape his exhausting life and the two men have a contest to determine who must stay and who gets to leave. In the meantime, Rita ponders if her life and her business are better off with either of the two men at all.
This pairing of one-act operas is divided by an intermezzo that is a treat. Utilizing the talents of Adrian Danzig, the founder and creative director of 500 Clown, the stage is transformed from Il Pigmalione to Rita by two performers using mime, circus arts, physical comedy and whimsy. They are Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Despicable Me’s Minions and the Marx Brothers. These clowns find their way into the second half of the evening and bring an additional charming layer to an already beautifully crafted piece.
The entire evening is fresh and lively and creative and a terrific introduction to opera. Both of these operas, however, illustrate the critical need for Chicago Opera Theater’s vision for the future in promoting diverse voices in opera, specifically women’s voices. Pigmalion’s dissatisfaction with anything but perfect physical beauty combines with his mansplaining of love to Galatea. Gasparo and Beppe draw straws to determine who must stay with Rita. These misogynistic themes have been alive and well in the arts for hundreds of years. It is exciting to find an opera company that aims to keep the tradition and the art of opera alive, while also attempting to change the narrative.
Il Pigmalione & Rita will be presented again on April 20 and 22 by The Chicago Opera Theater at The Studebaker Theater (410 S. Michigan).