Saturday October 20 5:51 am

Spotlighting events along the south shore of Lake Michigan

"Il Pigmalione and Rita" - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

Il Pigmalione & Rita-Pigmalion.jpg

"Il Pigmalione" was composed in 1816, when Donizetti was just 19 years old. He wrote his own libretto (some scholars say that it is patterned after Sografi) to tell the tale of an artist who is struggling with his craft and seeks inspiration from his own previous works. A classic story from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" now becomes a cautionary tale about where to focus your passions. It's not that Pigmalione (tenor Javier Abreu) is cold or heartless but rather he is doubtful that he will ever find true love. Abreu commands the stage, alone, for the first thirty to thirty-five minutes, tinkering in his atelier while unwrapping a statue he's sculpted or watching a movie that he has made of his elusive muse, Galatea (soprano Angela Mortellaro), all the while singing in his strong and expressive tenor. Ultimately, his artistic creation does take on a human form in a clever theatrical transformation.

Scenic Designer William Boles has created a wonderfully cramped yet inhabitable space, filled with various objects and numerous paintings on the walls. It is a very realistic interpretation of Pigmalione's cluttered studio loft as well as his inner turmoil. Ted Nazarowski has done a masterful job of lighting, with most of the action taking place in subdued and soft illumination, which is nicely contrasted by the harsh light emitting from Pigmalione's movie projector or the rosy glow of the aperture lens used when Galatea comes to life.

The concluding opera is the breezy and comic treat, "Rita", which was completed in 1841. In it you can easily hear just how much richer and more intricate the score is compared with "Il Pigmalione."
"Rita" is set in Naples and concerns a domineering woman named Rita, played by Mortellaro, who owns a seaside cafe and hotel. Rita has married Beppe, played by Abreu, after her husband died at sea several years previously. Soon a guest arrives named Gasparo (baritone Keith Phares) who causes all kinds of confusion and mayhem.

Assisting Rita and the very over-worked and hen-pecked Beppe are a staff of waiters, chefs, chambermaids and a Moped-driving chauffeur all played by very animated and highly amusing clowns. They include Sean Garratt, Alexander Knapp, Alexandra Martinez-Turano, Patrick Shelton, Lani Stait and Samuel Weiser and are under the guidance of the legendary Adrian Danzig, who is credited as the Director of Clowning. They all contribute greatly in making this a frothy and zany good time.

Mortellaro shines brightly in the title role. She struts around the stage in killer fashion, decked out in gorgeous and vibrant costumes designed by Sohanna Foster. Think early 1960's Italian chic, right off of the runway. Abreu is also very successful here in a completely and vastly different role than Pigmalione. He illustrates great comedic timing as well as tons of extraordinary and intense physicality as the exasperated husband. Phares is more cultivated and cool as Gasparo, neatly balancing out the other two. All three are commendable vocally and handle the complex and rapid-fire trio which comprises the final third section of the opera.

William Boles' set piece is spun around 180 degrees from the first act to reveal a stunning exterior to Rita's cafe. Adding several small round cafe tables outfitted with cheerful umbrellas and quaint wrought iron chairs assembled down stage completes the Neopolitan vibe. Ted Nazarowski's lighting is even more ravishing in "Rita." With a massive vibrant green neon sign above the door (which even emits "sparks" once Beppe mounts a ladder to fix it) to the liberal use of yellow filters, the entire look is luscious and captivating, as overwhelming as if you were on the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean itself.

Amy Hutchison, who directed both of these works, says that she was inspired by the films of the Italian neo-realists while developing "Il Pigmalione" and the works of Fellini for "Rita." While that may be most evident in the former, I would have to say that her "Rita" seems to have more in common with Roberto Benigni than Fellini. That's not a bad thing. Conductor Francesco Milioto finds magical moments in both of these completely disparate operas, with a restrained and sensitive interpretation in the first and a broader, more open sound awash with quick tempo in the second.

This sparkling and radiant production has one added feature that should not be missed. At the break between the two operas the house lights come up and so do the work lights on stage. Two of the clowns (Sean Garratt and Alexander Knapp) appear in coveralls and biker's hats to strike some of the set, rearrange some things and generally set up for the second act, incorporating crazy antics, mumbling to each other in broken Italian and even performing some magic tricks in the process. It's one of the very rare instances when you may want to remain in your seat during an intermission.