Handel a million laughs? Rinaldo is, and great music too

Who would imagine that a Handel opera could be such fun?

Lyric Opera opened a new production of the composer’s “Rinaldo” at the Civic Opera House, and the final opera in its 57th season is an extravaganza of music, drama, and plenty of side-splitting comedy!

The story is slight. Crusader Rinaldo, sung gloriously by American counertenor David Daniels, comes to Jerusalem to overthrow its evil King Argante, powerfully portrayed by Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, in his Lyric debut.

Rinaldo’s blonde sweetheart is Almirena, lovely German soprano Julia Kleiter, also in her Lyric debut. She sings the most gorgeous aria of the night—or any night  for that matter—the sublime “Lasci ch’io pianga” with delicacy and elegance.

Argante has a main squeeze too, the dreaded Armida, sung by South African soprano Elza Van Den Heever in her debut as the queen of mean.

The plot thickens when Armida tries Delilah-like to weaken Rinaldo and when he resists, cannot decide whether to kill or spare him. Meanwhile, Almirena has been kidnapped and Argante finds himself smitten by her beauty.

The over-the-top antics of these lovelorn characters peaks when Van Den Heever gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the woman scorned.

Louis Desire has designed a giant harpsichord, which dominates the stage in scene three of the second act. It even has a page-turner who turns the large score from back to front!

The real harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, is hidden in the orchestra pit, but the dazzling performance by this Chicago-born keyboard wizard is a highlight in a star-studded night.

At one point Argante sits down before the giant double keyboard and pretends to play. Next she’s on the edge of the stage, waiting for the harpsichordist to finally finish!

Aria upon aria punctuate the recitative, and the orchestra, under the baton of Harry Bicket is consistently clear and rich.

The opera runs almost three and a half hours, but nine dancers enliven the show, appearing sometimes as furies, sometimes as Rockettes in a kick line. So, thanks to director Francisco Negrin and choreographer Ana Yepes, there is never a dull moment. Be prepared to laugh.

“Rinaldo” is presented through March 24 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Call 312-332-2244 or visit lyricopera.com.