Unintentional Humor in Händel’s “Rinaldo” at Chicago Lyric

United StatesUnited States  Händel, Rinaldo: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Harry Bicket (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 16.3.2012 (JLZ)

Rinaldo: David Daniels
Almirena: Julia Kleiter
Armida: Elza van den Heever
Argante: Luca Pisaroni
Goffredo: Sonia Prina
Eustazio: Iestyn Davies

Conductor: Harry Bicket
Director: Francisco Negrin
Designer: Louis Désiré
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Choreographer: Ana Yepes

Iestyn Davies, Sonia Prina RINALDO Photo credit: Dan Rest

Three centuries after its premiere in 1711, Händel’s opera Rinaldo continues to fascinate listeners. Intriguing for various reasons, Rinaldo has a libretto derived from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata, a work in which the poet combines historic events from the First Crusade with elements of popular culture, including fantasy. Here the crusaders attempting to conquer Jerusalem encounter not only human armies, but forces requiring them to deal with magic and sorcery. This multi-dimensional work (by a twenty-six-year-old Händel) is daunting to stage, which of course is part of its attraction. The revivals in the composer’s lifetime reflect such challenges; revisions (notably in 1717 and 1731) resulted in altered voice types, characters deleted or restored, and other changes. The fact that Händel returned to the score at various times in his career attests to the value he found in the work as he presented it to new audiences.

Of the various stagings of Rinaldo in recent years, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production offers a unique presentation. Conceived in a post-modern milieu, the focal point is a monolith composed of stacked block letters that make up the word “Gerusalemme” to represent the city, set against a backdrop of luminescent panels, which change in color as the opera proceeds. Two boxes are prominent: one shaped like a grand piano and sometimes suspended above the stage, and the other used to imprison Rinaldo when he is enchanted by Armida. In addition to swords, pikes, banners, and other kinds of martial accessories, the props include bottles of liquor (given that Armida occasionally resorts to drink). The motif continues in the final scene through the use of a large ewer to dispense a healing liquid to symbolize reconciliation. Yet the staging challenges the libretto’s otherwise satisfactory conclusion, with Armida smashing the ewer – instead of partaking of it – as the curtain descends.

Such details sometimes took precedence over the musical content, as in the conclusion of Act 2, Armida’s aria “Vo’ far guerra.” Here the concertato interaction between singer and harpsichord (the latter played brilliantly by Jory Vinikour) becomes a musical duel, with one performer obliged to triumph over the other, rather than emphasizing (as the scene should) the increasingly potent intensity of Armida.

The introduction of such details resulted in a staging that vacillated between comedy and opera. For example, Argante’s passion for Armida was depicted with the two characters writhing so vigorously that what should have been a suggestion of passion moved quickly to caricature. In these and other places, the humorous elements emphasized amusement at the expense of the music, and minimized the themes of virtue and perseverance celebrated in the text and the score. Other elements, like dance, were used so extensively that they sometimes elicited laughter from the audience; a more discreet use of choreography might have been more effective.

Julia Kleiter Rinaldo Photo credit: Dan Rest

Nevertheless, some numbers stood out for conveying powerful expression: in “Lascia ch’io pianga,” the second-act aria for Rinaldo’s beloved Almirena, Julia Kleiter was particularly moving in expressing her soulful desire for freedom. Without props or other devices, Kleiter captivated the audience, and further, was strong throughout the opera. Iestyn Davies was persuasive as Eustazio; his aria at the opening of the second act “Siam prossimi al porto” typified his satisfying approach. And Sonia Prina gave a particularly effective performance as Goffredo, with the tone, facility, and expression coming together in exemplary fashion. In Goffredo’s first-act aria “Sovra balze scoscese” Prina was compelling both musically and dramatically. And “No, no, che quest’alma” had the appropriate precision, focus and emotional pitch. In addition the Italian baritone Luca Pisaroni made his Lyric debut in the role of Argante.

David Daniels sang the title role, which he had previously done at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. (The latter is available on DVD, also led by Harry Bicket, who conducted the present production at Lyric. Christopher Hogwood’s CD recording of Rinaldo also includes Daniels in the title role.) While I would like to have been able to comment more fully, unfortunately in this particular performance balances were sometimes off, and it was difficult to hear Daniels’ voice with consistent clarity – a pity, since he’s a fine artist.

James L. Zychowicz