CHICAGO -- For sheer variety, it would be hard to top back-to-back performances at the Lyric Opera this week of the Broadway musical "Show Boat" and Handel's baroque masterpiece "Rinaldo."
The two works, written more than 200 years apart, were seen in new productions that proved highly entertaining despite some flaws. They also reflected in different ways the financial challenges facing America's opera houses.
"Rinaldo," which opened Wednesday night, has a splendid international cast. All the leads were making Lyric debuts except for American countertenor David Daniels in the title role of the Christian warrior who seeks to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens.
Directed by Francisco Negrin with wit and imagination, the production uses a simple set by Louis Desire consisting of two angled walls lined with shiny vertical strips of red plastic. A gap at the rear is covered by a movable structure made up of giant block letters that spell out the word "Gerusalemme" as if assembled by a child.
A large harpsichord descends on wires and dangles over the stage, serving as the prison where Rinaldo's sweetheart Almirena is held captive. There are also balloons, a throne that rises from below and a black box in which Rinaldo is transported to the realm of the sorceress Armida.
For much of the night, this inventiveness is captivating, though Negrin seems to run short of ideas near the end. And certainly there's nothing on the lavish scale of what audiences saw at the premiere in 1711, when a flock of live sparrows was released into the auditorium.
But as Negrin says in a program note, doing more with less is a necessity in today's economy. "It's not financially feasible to do productions the way we used to even 10 years ago," he said, "so we have to find other ways of entertaining audiences."
Daniels, a veteran of this role, sang with poise and technical mastery, though his voice has lost power over the years. At times the young English countertenor Iestyn Davies, as the pious Eustazio, threatened to overshadow him with his bright, penetrating sound.
The revelation of the night was South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Armida. Blessed with a plush, dramatic voice capable of formidable power and dazzling high notes, she also showed herself to be a first-rate comic actress.
Her Armida, given to petulance and a fondness for liquor, brought down the house with her Act 2 vengeance aria, which the production turns into a battle of one-upmanship against harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. Later, she and the terrific Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (as the infidel king Argante) sang a memorable duet rolling around on the floor in hot embrace while plotting their attack on the Christians.
As Almirena, German soprano Julia Kleiter melted hearts with her account of the score's most famous aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga (Let me weep)." Italian contralto Sonia Prina showed impressive dexterity with the tricky embellishments in Goffredo's arias.
Harry Bicket, who conducted last year's production of Handel's "Hercules," was back to lead the orchestra in a stylish performance, despite some coordination issues.
"Show Boat," which played the night before, opened last month in a lively, fast-moving production by Francesca Zambello with a big, multiracial cast and sets by Peter J. Davison and costumes by Paul Tazewell.
It has renewed a debate over whether works from the musical theater belong in the opera house – especially given Lyric's decision to amplify the voices and to cast it with a mix of opera singers and musical theater performers.
Of course, this isn't just any musical. The 1927 show, based on the Edna Ferber novel with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, is a groundbreaking work that deals seriously with issues of racial injustice. And the score overflows with tuneful melodies that make it more operetta than musical comedy.
Moreover, the Lyric, like every opera house, needs to fill seats, and "Show Boat" appears to be a hit at a time when less familiar works are a tough sell. (Plenty of empty seats were visible for "Rinaldo.") The production will travel to Houston next season and then to San Francisco and Washington.
The electronic enhancement of the voices – normally verboten in an opera house – is a problem, however, as it sometimes throws off the balance between singers and makes them seem to fade in and out as they move around.
There's also a clash of acting styles, with some over-the-top hamming (Ericka Mac as Ellie May) and some expert comic performances (Ross Lehman and Cindy Gold as Captain Andy and his wife, Parthy).
As Magnolia, soprano Ashley Brown, who starred on Broadway in "Mary Poppins," sang with a sweetly tremulous sound but never conveyed much sense of the character's growth over more than 40 years. She wasn't helped by Zambello's handling of the ending, which here just fizzles out with Magnolia looking scarcely a day older than when it all began.
Baritone Nathan Gunn gave a nicely restrained performance as her ne'er-do-well husband, Gaylord Ravenal, but he sounded underpowered and slightly frayed at the top of his range.
Bass Morris Robinson as Joe brought gravitas to the incessantly repeated "Ol' Man River," and soprano Angela Renee Simpson was a live-wire as his wife, Queenie. But as the mixed-race Julie, soprano Alyson Cambridge didn't quite capture the heartbreak of the great song "Bill."
John DeMain conducted a version of the score orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett that includes banjo and acoustic guitar.
"Show Boat" plays through March 17; "Rinaldo" through March 24.