“It’s magic!” Whether through Disney cartoons, renowned illusionists, or smartphones, visual magic continues to delight contemporary audiences. Three hundred years ago in 18th-century London, audiences were stunned by Handel’s all-new operatic extravaganza Rinaldo, which not only featured a top-notch cast, but also the latest and greatest special effects. On Wednesday, the Lyric Opera of Chicago followed suit by transforming Handel’s epic masterpiece into a showcase of modern special effects.

Luca Pisaroni (Arganto) in Rinaldo, © Dan Rest
Luca Pisaroni (Arganto) in Rinaldo,
© Dan Rest

In this highly innovative, avant-garde production directed by Francisco Negrin, operagoers at the Lyric were transported to a world more surreal than that of Salvador Dalí, complete with highly minimalistic sets composed solely of four hues: red, white, black, and gold. The flashing red background – the only scenery – and the only two props, a huge pile of words spelling “Gerusalemme” and a giant harpsichord hanging from the ceiling, were purely allegorical, respectively representing the holy city and Armida’s garden. References to religion and the Crusades were totally nixed. The bizarrely futuristic costumes faintly resembled reality, adding only glamor, while cat-like, exotic dancers prowled about the stage impersonating birds, demons, and soldiers.

Undoubtedly, the cast and instrumental ensemble were the crowning achievement of this production. In a gigantic comeback from last year’s disappointing performance in the Lyric’s Hercules production, renowned countertenor David Daniels was a strong lead as Rinaldo, showcasing his matchless countertenor voice to the fullest, while Iestyn Davies as Eustazio proved a stunning countertenor runner-up. Sonia Prina’s rich contralto voice commanded authority as Goffredo, as did that of Elza van den Heever as the devious and saucy sorceress Armida. The remaining cast was also vocally strong, and I was equally captivated by the exquisite articulation of the historically-informed instrumental ensemble led by English Consort director Harry Bicket. Especially mesmerizing to me (as a recorder player) was the agile, flawlessly executed sopranino recorder solo performed onstage by American Recorder Society president Lisette Kielson during an aria by Julia Kleiter (Almirena).

If the cast and the musical ensemble were the sole factors, this would have been a thoroughly enjoyable evening. However, while tasteful modernization in opera productions can be highly entertaining and beneficial, these postmodern sets proved too extreme. If I had not been familiar with the opera’s story and had not attended the pre-concert lecture, I would have had no idea as to the opera’s plot or setting. Having known the story beforehand, the allegorical aspect intrigued me, yet I still found myself concocting my own scenery in my mind.

Other questionable aspects to the production included several sexual, semi-explicit sight gags during the opera’s finale, and the portrayal of Armida as a chronic, depressed alcoholic. Such measures are simply out of line with Baroque opera’s original intentions: in the same light as the recent Rusalka controversy in London, overt modernization to make the bizarre, shocking aspects the central focus of the opera sometimes does no more than detract from the story and the original intentions of the operas’ composers. On the positive side, I found the “dueling harpsichords” gag (between the ranting Armida and the show-stopping harpsichordist Jory Vinikour) highly humorous, alarmingly remniscent of the famous “dueling pianos” gag in classic cartoons. This wonderfully clean gag alone far outweighed the negative effects of the “naughtier” ones, demonstrating a high level of creativity on the producers’ part.

In the end, this production of Rinaldo drew a varied reaction from me. Without a doubt, the singing was some of the finest Baroque singing that I have ever experienced. This alone made this production a highly worthwhile evening of Baroque entertainment and inspiration to me – one that will remain with me always. Adding to the magic, I found myself enraptured, lip-synching and listening deeply – not relying on subtitles – during arias with which I am intimately familiar. However, all other aspects of the production proved disorienting and often disappointing.

This production was not simply a modernization, but was completely in conflict with the staging protocol of Baroque opera. For those seeking top-notch Baroque singing, homage to the surreal film genre, allegory at its finest, and the ultimate bizarre, this production is highly worthwhile. However, for those hungering for more beyond the singing and excellent playing, this production may disappoint. All in all, a mixed bag, and a welcome venture into the surreal for all those who dare to pursue its alluring appeal.

***11