COT closes season with uneven Donizetti double bill

Mon Apr 16, 2018 at 4:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Angela Mortellaro in the title role of Donizetti’s “Rita” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren

Chicago Opera Theater has been enjoying a notable season with successful productions of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul and Kevin Puts’ Elizabeth Cree.

With a new artistic and executive team in place, one had hopes that the company would close its season in similarly positive fashion. Unfortunately, COT’s Donizetti double bill, which opened Saturday night at the Studebaker Theater, shows the company is still largely clueless about presenting 19th century Italian opera, ending its season on a wildly uneven note.

COT’s marketing states that their Donizetti pairing represents his first and one of his last operas. While Il Pigmalione is indisputably the composer’s first opera, Rita is far from one of his final stage works. (Indeed, he would complete six more operas including Don Pasquale.) It’s more accurate to say that COT’s double bill represents Donizetti’s first and last one-act operas.

Il Pigmalione, on the brief first half, is a musically slender work yet proved the more successful performance, largely because the staging avoided intrusive distractions and was more faithful to the piece.

Written at age 19 in two weeks, Pigmalione shows the quick facility that the composer enjoyed in his craft from the beginning. Taking from the celebrated Ovid myth, the sculptor Pigmalione wrestles with his artistic confidence and, eventually, his psychological well-being as he falls in love with his creation, Galatea. 

Donizetti called Pigmalione a “Lyric Scene” rather than an opera and the one-act work is essentially a 40-minute monodrama for the conflicted title character until Galatea comes to life at the very end.

The sculptor’s crazed alternation between  despair and avowals of love to his statute recalls Joe Flaherty in SCTV’s Toulouse Lautrec film parody (“I love you! No, I hate you! I love you! I hate you!”). Yet despite the absurdities, Pigmalione is a surprisingly polished debut for the teenage composer, with the gracious melody and a couple lilting arias showing Donizetti’s familiar style, albeit in somewhat embryonic form.

Javier Abreu and Angela Mortellaro in Donizetti’s “Il Pigmalione” at COT. Photo: Liz Lauren

One can imagine a voice with more tonal sweetness and greater agility making a better case for this piece than that of Javier Abreu. Still, the tenor handled the arias and coloratura solidly and his credible acting avoided unwonted hilarity in a strange piece.

In her brief appearance as the anthropomorphic Galatea, Angela Mortellaro made much of this small role. Her touching poise and sensitive acting as the confused statue comes to life were as impressive as her rich soprano in the closing duet.

With the setting updated to postwar Italy, Pigmalione here is a painter and filmmaker as well as a sculptor. William Boles’ set nicely reflected the artist’s claustrophobic studio, and Galatea coming to life via film from his ancient projector was a nice touch. Amy Huchison’s staging was fluid and unobtrusive.

Unfortunately, one can’t say the same for her manic production of Rita on the second half. This would-be zany staging goes completely off the rails, imbibing some of the worst elements of Lyric Opera’s recent Faust and 2015 Le nozze di Figaro. When you see a program with a full-page credit for a “Director of Clowning” in a Donizetti opera, you know you’re in for it.

Rita concerns the title character who runs an Italian inn and is married to the henpecked Beppe. Her abusive first husband Gasparo, believed to have died in a shipwreck, turns up after many years to get his death certificate from Rita so he can then marry a rich Canadian widow. Hilarity ensues, sort of, with the mixed-up relationships and selfish motivations.

While Rita can be regarded as a kind of trial run for the domestic comedy of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, it doesn’t possess anything as indelible as the best music from that comic masterpiece. Still the music in this hour-long one act is more substantial than Pigmalione and its eight numbers are unfailingly tuneful, clever and crafted with Donizetti’s usual panache.

As in Pigmalione, the action is here updated to postwar Italy. Rather than an inn, the title character runs a casual restaurant. Boles has created a smart unit set for Rita’s corner cafe and patio (“Cafe Rita”emblazoned in neon). Shanna Foster’s colorful period costumes are dead-on and there are other nice scenic touches, as with Gasparo arriving on a Vespa. So far, so good.

The problem is that director Huchison has decided the commedia dell’arte tradition that Rita comes out of should be the dominating factor in this production. So we get five miming “clowns” who are dressed identically as Beppe and who gesture, tumble about and run up and down the theater aisles, providing all kinds of high-energy, unfunny stage business.

Huchison, who has done solid work for Chicago Fringe Opera, clearly never got the memo about how distracting miming extras are in an opera. In addition to being hugely annoying, the clowns ultimately proved as damaging to COT’s Rita as the omnipresent demon extras in Lyric’s Faust.

If the clowns were irritating, the interventionist heavy hand taken with the opera itself was appalling. Granted, Donizetti’s Rita is not Parsifal–it’s not even Don Pasquale. But Rita is a tight and effective comedy with an acidic edge to it about the selfish calculation in all domestic relationships.

Yet Huchison and company seem to no confidence in Donizetti’s Rita as written, to the extent they felt the need to add all kinds of (wisely uncredited) dialogue, most of it lame and banal. This includes an extended debate about whether the opera should be performed in English or Italian, taking an audience poll, and carrying on in both languages in defiance of the text and common sense.

Huchison makes the mistake of many directors who have no idea about how to stage operatic farce–instead they believe, erroneously, that filling the stage with all kinds of frantic activity automatically equals funny.

At times this Rita bore little resemblance to the original opera. All the nonstop mugging and cartoonish shenanigans pushed Donizetti’s attractive music deep into the background of the show. Call COT’s version dumbed-down Donizetti.

Essentially, this Rita is a tiresome stage comedy with scattered musical selections from Donizetti’s opera rather than the opera itself. If COT has so little faith in Donizetti’s Rita that they have to bastardize it to this degree, why in the world did they decide to present it in the first place?

Unfortunately, a worthy cast was lost amid all the “comic” excess of this production.

As Rita’s submissive husband Beppe, Abreu sang decently but mugged outrageously throughout, assisted–if that’s the word–by the quintet of identical Beppe doubles. Abreu gets trouper points for being hoisted high above the stage but the unnecessary effect only had the result of upstaging Beppe’s charming little aria.

Angela Mortellaro emerged with the most dignity intact as the no-nonsense title proprietor.  The domineering Rita isn’t a very likable character. (Despite the director’s attempts to mine some #MeToo topicality from the libretto, Rita is just as physically abusive to the hapless Beppe as Gasparo was to her.) Still, Mortellaro sang with gleaming tone and fine flexibility throughout. Hopefully Chicago will see the Milwaukee native again in a production more worthy of her talents. 

Keith Phares sang with a robust if not very Italianate baritone as Gasparo. He did what he could with an unpleasant character who actually sings and counsels Beppe on how beating your wife makes for a more successful marriage.

The “intermezzo” during intermission between the two operas–with the clowns changing scenery and falling about–added little to the proceedings except to provide an ominous harbinger of what was to come in the second half.

Conductor Francesco Milioto elicited orchestral playing for both operas that was polished, sympathetic and wholly idiomatic. Hopefully someday COT will learn to stage 19th century Italian opera with an artistic integrity commensurate with what Milioto routinely accomplishes in the pit.

Il Pigmalione and Rita will be repeated 7:30 p.m. April 20 and 3 p.m. April 22.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “COT closes season with uneven Donizetti double bill”

  1. Posted Apr 16, 2018 at 4:54 pm by Cianne

    I very much enjoy your reviews and respect your opinions, but the repeated mentions of the “Nozze” at Lyric that you didn’t like three years ago have become tiresome. Those of us who read all your opera reviews know you hated that production. Mentioning it doesn’t necessarily help me understand your reaction to the work at hand.

  2. Posted Apr 16, 2018 at 6:55 pm by jizungu

    Disagree with you almost entirely, and I hope your review does not dissuade readers from checking out what I thought a delightful production of “Rita.” (They might check Von Rhein in the Tribune for a second opinion.) Granted, some of the gags were belabored, but I thought Donizetti’s frothy score held up well under the colorful production. I was less impressed than you with the soprano, whom I found squally: often too loud & with wavering pitch. Tellingly, her sound was much truer in ensembles, when she moderated her volume. “Pigmalione” I found tedious, tho thankfully short.

  3. Posted Apr 21, 2018 at 4:11 pm by Peter-DG

    We saw the COT presentation yesterday, thoroughly enjoyed it, and would recommend it, especially for anyone who is not a seasoned opera buff. For me the Faust staging was an insult, but that’s because I’ve seen many good Faust productions and understand the point of that work.

    I’ve never seen Rita before so I don’t know if the criticism made by LAJ is valid. I totally enjoyed it as a farce. Maybe that’s not what Donizetti intended. A few clowns in the audience near me were quite a pain but the production clowns were fun, though at times tedious. Also Pigmalione felt labored. In Rita the use of English worked very well. I wish the Lyric did that with it’s spoken dialogue.

    I attended all COT productions back in the Rapchak years, but have seen few since because I did not care for the direction the company took .After this experience I may be a subscriber again. They are not The Grand Opera, and I don’t want then to be.

    One gripe: from our front balcony seats it sounded to me like some singers were amplified. In that theater that’s a real shame.

  4. Posted Apr 21, 2018 at 8:53 pm by Peter Gutowski

    Whoa, Larry! Calm down and smell the fresh air! I afraid if you were to see a production of Ariadne auf Naxos you would take Strauss to task for contaminating a perfectly good opera seria with “antics.”

    I thought Amy Hutchinson’s work on Rita to be a wonderfully admirable (I’d say visionary, but don’t want to risk hyperbole) translation of what Donizetti and his librettist left incomplete by only leaving us with written idea of the “work”. If conductors, performers, directors and designers were to limit their energies to not take creative license to try to envision what the composer and librettist were perhaps going for, we would be living in a poor world indeed!

    I walked away from Friday’s performance saying to myself, “now here’s people who are really thinking!” Donizetti’s operas were intended to entertain us, so don’t be such a spoilsport when somebody actually succeeds in achieving that!

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