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Baroque-era rarity ‘Rinaldo' closes Lyric's season with a triumph

Elza Van Den Heever (as Armida), right, and David Daniels (as Rinaldo) perform in George Frideric Handel's Rinaldo at the Lyric Opera Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Handel’s first Italian opera for London, “Rinaldo,” turned 301 last week, and it’s looking good – and sounding great – at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where a new production opened to audience cheers Wednesday night.(The final entry into the last season fully planned by outgoing general director William Mason, the 1711 Baroque romance-romp is definitely one of the year’s highlights, with a cast of six leading-role singers and five supporting – all uniformly at the top of their games. (Lyric presented a literally one-night only concert performance of “Rinaldo” with and for mezzo Marilyn Horne in 1984, but this was the stage premiere.)

English guest conductor Harry Bicket’s musical leadership is so great and the work of the Lyric Orchestra so strong that even complete novices to works of this era should find themselves enchanted. When were you last at an opera where a harpsichord soloist got a standing ovation? Perhaps the genius performer, Chicago-born, Paris-based Jory Vinikour, gets this all the time. It was new to me and delightful.

American director Francisco Negrin, who staged the composer’s “Partenope” here in 2002-03, thinks of himself as a bad boy. Some patrons at intermissions just found him bad. He’s probably neither. At times you wondered if the singers were giving such psychologically nuanced, exquisitely focused performances because they were fighting against some of the nonsense he had them doing onstage or because he actually had some insight into their characters. It didn’t matter in the end, thanks to his over-all vision that the creaky plot needs jazzing up and some Handel-appropriate mockery to come alive. At the curtain calls, there was not a boo in the house.

Story? If you must: Late 11th-century Frankish knight Goffredo (via Tasso’s epic poem, everything’s Italianized), encamped outside of the gates of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, watches everyone around him get involved in love troubles, from Rinaldo, his chief warrior, to his daughter, Almirena, to Argante, the Saracen king and defender of the Jerusalem, and Argante’s mistress, the sorceress Armida, queen of Damascus. Only Goffredo’s brother, Eustazio, a prudish cleric in this production, is immune.

Little of this matters and little mattered to Handel, who assembled “Rinaldo” from his earlier works, including one of his most lasting and beautiful arias, “Lascia ch’io pianga.” Here it’s given a show-stopping rendition by German soprano Julia Kleiter as Almirena in her first-ever staged Handel, and like all of the leads, except the peerless David Daniels in the title role, making her Lyric debut.

Turning 46 this month, Daniels continues to display the ultimate artistry of the countertenor, especially in the remarkable series of runs, trills and roulades that flow through three acts and in his duets with true love Almirena and hocusy-pocusy would-be seductress Armida (South African soprano Elza van den Heever). Van den Heever is excellent in everything she does, but especially in Negrin’s greatest scene, a tour de force “Vo’ far guerra” at the end of Act II, where she battles, figuratively and literally, with Vinikour and his harpsichord.

Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, born in Venezuela but raised in Verdi’s hometown of Busseto, Italy, has the swagger, the deep sounds, the looks and the acting chops for Argante. British countertenor Iestyn Davies is another great discovery as Eustazio. (His clear and winning voice also can be heard when Bicket leads three all-Handel programs March 9-14 with the Baroque Band in Hyde Park, Orchestra Hall and Evanston.) A real, unabashed contralto, Italy’s Sonia Prina played more effective gender-bending tricks as Goffredo than the countertenors, of whom there was one more, Ryan Belongie as the Sage, in a nice debut. Four Ryan Center singers, sopranos Kiri Deonarine and Jennifer Jakob, mezzo Cecelia Hall and tenor James Kryshak handled their roles with aplomb.

French set and costume designer Louis Desire and Briton Bruno Poet’s lights allowed Negrin to engage in many a wild fantasy without spending too much money. Spanish choreographer Ana Ypes’ and ballet mistress August Tye’s corps of nine snarling dancers/Furies had a “Viva Las Vegas” thing going at times. The whole thing flies by, even at 3 ½ hours, including two intermissions. The forked-tongue ending says all that needs to be said about religious conflicts, in Jerusalem or elsewhere.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).