Opera companies regularly schedule Gaetano Donizetti’s popular masterpieces like “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Don Pasquale.” But for its final 2017-18 offering, which opens April 14, Chicago Opera Theater has eschewed such staples for two of the Italian bel canto composer’s least-known works: “Il Pigmalione” and “Rita.”

Chicago Opera Theater — ‘Il Pigmalione & Rita’ 
When: 7:30 p.m. April 14 and 20 and 3 p.m. April 22
Where: Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan
Tickets: $45-$145
Info: chicagooperatheater.org

The company’s general director, Douglas R. Clayton, came up with the idea of pairing the two one-act works from early and late in Donizetti’s career. And he charged Chicago stage director Amy Hutchison with making this possibly unprecedented double bill function as a fun, seamless whole.

Both operas highlight different facets of love. Drawn from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” “Il Pigmalione (Pygmalion)” (1816) focuses on an artist who falls head over heels with his sculpture of a woman and prays that she comes to life. The better-known “Rita” (1841) offers a comic look at a hapless husband and his domineering wife.

They share the common theme of how imagination can be both the engine of desire and the enemy of love. “This paradox pervades both pieces,” Hutchison said, “as all these suffering lovers long to escape the untenable circumstances they’ve created by imagining the best (and worst) in their partners. Love makes us blissful, romantic, dizzy, and generous, but also desperate, anxious, paranoid and foolish.”

To provide continuity, tenor Javier Abreu and soprano Angela Mortellaro will play the principal characters in both operas, with baritone Keith Phares joining the comic fray in “Rita” as the title character’s first husband.

Director Amy Hutchison speaks with Adrian Danzig, director of clowning, during a rehearsal for Chicago Opera Theater ‘s “Il Pigmalione & Rita” on Monday, April 9, 2018 at the Studebaker Theater. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Hutchison, a former member of the directing staff at Lyric Opera of Chicago, has moved the action to the optimistic, post-war world of 1950s and ’60s Italy. In part, she felt that the changing attitudes about the roles and relationships of men and women during that time provided an ideal milieu to explore the romantic interplay in these two operas.

Shanna Foster’s costumes are influenced by famed Italian fashion illustrator René Gruau, who reached his zenith in the 1940s and ’50s. The set, designed by William Boles, will transform from the black-and-white sensibility of neo-realist cinema in “Il Pigmalione” to a Fellini-inspired explosion of color in “Rita.” “They will look like completely separate worlds,” said Hutchison.

Adding appeal to this production is the collaboration of Adrian Danzig, founder and creative director of 500 Clown and an expert in physical theater – someone whom Hutchison has long admired. “ ‘500 Clown MacBeth’ is one of the best pieces of theater I’ve ever seen anywhere,” she said.

Danzig’s highly physical brand of theater will be introduced during the intermission – a kind of intermezzo with what Hutchison called “comic surprises.” “What we’re doing is more in the world of live, interactive clowning,” Danzig said. “On some level, clowns are disrupters. We’re disrupting not only the opera itself but also opera (the art form).”

Most of the physical theater will be seen in “Rita,” a comic story of an abusive couple with its roots in the Punch and Judy realm of Italy’s 16th-century commedia dell’arte. “I wanted to make sure that we are heightening the sense of danger in it and also the ridiculousness and the absurdity of the comedy,” Hutchison said.

Taking part in the production are two performers from the physical-theater world, Sean Garrat and Alexander Knapp, along with two members of Chicago Opera Theater’s young artists program who have received crash training in Danzig’s approach. The four serve as kind of clownish doppelgängers for Rita’s husband, Beppe, portraying exaggerated extensions of his emotions and personality.

Tenor Javier Abreu, who plays the title character of Pigmalione in Chicago Opera Theater’s “Il Pigmalione & Rita” performs a scene during a rehearsal Monday, April 9, 2018 at the Studebaker Theater. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

Danzig, who is working in opera for the first time, has been surprised at what physically gifted actors the opera singers in this production are. “I was expecting people to stand around and make shapes with their arms, and these guys have none of that,” he said. “They are going for the action.”

Hutchison and Danzig praised Abreu in particular. “We are incredibly blessed,” the director said, “because Javier Abreu is both a fantastic singer but also an incredible actor and he is as expressive as our physical performers – more so in some cases.”

“Il Pigmalione & Rita” will be Chicago Opera Theater’s fifth production in the 691-seat Studebaker Theater, which Hutchison said is ideally suited to these works, especially the intimacy of the opener.

“Oh my gosh, it is a gem,” Hutchison said of the 1898 space in the Fine Arts Building. “I just absolutely love it, and every inch of the theater will get explored in ‘Rita,’ and people will have a lot of fun with that.”

Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.