Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Just for Laughs
March 05, 2012
One of the many things I love about Baroque opera in particular is how malleable it is. This is as true today as it was then. Take Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Handel’s Rinaldo as an example. Handel wrote the work in record time. It was his first Italian opera for the London stage in 1711 and he recycled large amounts of music from works he had previously written while living in Italy. The work was a hit despite negative critical reaction, and Handel reworked the piece several different times over the next 20 years to meet the needs of various productions. Today his operas are treated in much the same fashion. Cuts are commonplace, and interpolations are made for various reasons. Rarely do opera companies or stage directors feel the need to emulate the settings or time periods of the works with anywhere near the rigor they do with operas from other periods.
But this openness provides for wildly varying takes on similar works. Just last year, LOC presented a modern dress production of Handel’s Hercules directed by Peter Sellars that drew parallels between Handel’s characters and American veterans returning home from the Iraq war. A year later, we have Rinaldo which is set during the First Crusade as Christian armies invaded Jerusalem to reclaim the city by force from the Muslim population. A scenario ripe for contemporary interpretation a la Sellars? No doubt. But the director of this Rinaldo, Francisco Negrin took perhaps a completely opposite yet still very contemporary tack. This Rinaldo despite its dark and brooding look was played mostly for campy laughs and gripping visuals that slowly but surely sucked one in. It may not be the most thought provoking take on an opera, but this Rinaldo is immense fun and great eye candy.
Like much of Negrin’s work, the show is sharply angular, dark with colorful lighting, and dressed like some post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang. The set is dominated by a giant wall that lights up in sections interrupted only by a multi-story sculpture of the city’s Italian name, Gerusalemme. That cast often climb up and over that sculpture, but perhaps the most arresting visual moments are set around the motif of a giant black harpsichord box that is repeatedly lowered from above and tilted to reveal the inside to the audience when the lid is open. The harpsichord comes to represent the prison of the sorceress queen, Armida, one of the opera’s two villains. Armida opens the box and colorful balloons sprout from it by the dozens to lure in Rinaldo’s lover Almirena who becomes trapped inside and held hostage. Soprano Julia Kleiter sings two of her arias while entangled in the strings inside this giant harpsichord which is an image that sticks in one’s head. Later the Armida, an excellent Elza van den Heever, thrashing about in the throws of a rageful rejection of her affections will “play” this giant instrument while clowning around with the orchestra’s own harpsichordist.
Sometimes the absurdity of it all doesn’t quite work out. Louis Désiré's costumes can be particularly ridiculous, Rinaldo and the Christians in duster coast and leather, Argante and the Muslims in jackets and long skirts made up of Oriental rug remnants. Baritone Luca Pisaroni sings the role of Argante and once again is trapped in a costume that does everything in its power to work against his natural good looks. There's unexpected bursts of tafeta from Almirena's outfit as well like something that would get a contestant booted off Project Runway or better yet, RuPaul's Drag Race. The stage action is frenetic to the point of distraction at times. But there are some campy moments as well including a sequence where Rinaldo, played by countertenor David Daniels clad in a sleeveless leather vest, is held back by a bevy of dancers wearing matador-style capes as he does a spit-take following an unwanted kiss from the amorous queen Armida. Cooties indeed.
With so much to look at, one might forget there was an opera going on, but there was and musically there was a lot to like. Conductor Harry Bicket is no slouch and he got a good steady performance from the orchestra. Not all the vocalists were with him at all times with mezzo Sonia Prina, who sang the role of Goffredo, often going commando with her own tempos. Van den Heever has a big bright voice that may have been a bit large scale for this sort of show, but she could at least be heard easily in the big house. Better yet she proved to be a comic actress of the first rate digging into the wild lovelorn fluctuations of Armida with brio. Perhaps the vocalist who had the best evening was the wonderful Iestyn Davies as Goffredo’s brother Eustazio. Davies projected well with a bright easy tone and the agility to manage the coloratura pyrotechnics allowed for in the score. He’s boyishly handsome and even with his Mad Max outfit all eyes were on him. He’s the next great countertenor and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be in top-billed roles starting today. By contrast, while David Daniels is still an exciting performer to watch, the vocal details are increasingly in softer focus for him.
But even with its weaker spots, this Rinaldo provides many of the kicks people who love opera live for. It’s preposterous, yes, but it’s fun, attractive to look at and often beautiful to hear. And even if you don’t think or don’t know if you love opera you should see it. It might just put you in the other category. The show runs through March 24th.