Minnesota Opera’s ‘Rinaldo’ sets Handel’s baroque opera in a fantasy 1980s Wall Street

Baroque is apparently a hot ticket this week, as Minnesota Opera’s production of “Rinaldo” is currently sold out. Part of that might have to do with the smaller venue— Minnesota Opera’s new Luminary Art Center. It also might have to do with the fact that it’s a rare occurrence for the company to present Baroque repertoire.

Baroque operas— written between around 1600 and 1750, historically broke away from sacred music traditions, emphasizing solo voice, and expressive harmonies contrasted with a bass line. It was eclipsed by the Classical period, which was less adorned than Baroque music, with a focus on order. Classical gave way to the most emotive of the different eras, the Romantic era.

Opera stage director Mo Zhou has always been a Baroque fan: “Handel is my jam,” she says. When the Minnesota Opera asked her if she wanted to direct George Frideric Handel’s opera, “Rinaldo,” written in 1711, she told them it was her favorite opera. “They were like, really? How odd is that!” she recalls.

She remembers listening to the work when she was starting out in her career as a young Chinese American director banging on doors of different opera houses. “It’s very hard to have people see me as I really am,” she recalls. “So in this very difficult time, I just found myself keep going back to this music.”

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After Minnesota Opera hired her and she began working on the score, she found herself confronting some of the deep problems with libretto. The story takes place during the first Crusade, and the villains are Muslim king Argante and his Muslim sorceress love interest, Armida. In the original version, they convert to Christianity at the end of the story, though the 1731 version has the two escaping via dragon chariot without “repenting.”

Zhou knew it would be a lift trying to figure out how to stage the story in 2022. “The moment you start touching religion, it becomes very tricky,” she says.  She began researching the First Crusade, and came to the conclusion that while it was ostensibly about religion, an underlying driver was trade.

Minnesota Opera

Opera stage director Mo Zhou

In Zhou’s production, the story is set in a fantasy version of a 1980s Wall Street era, where old money and new money face off. Rinaldo is portrayed as a trust fund baby and the sorceress Armida becomes a financial wizard unable to break through the glass ceiling. Zhou says they didn’t change any text for the adaptation, instead making cuts for the problematic bits. She unfolds the story in a world where privilege, generational wealth, and greed elevate the stakes.

It’s Zhou’s first time directing with Minnesota Opera, though President and General Director Ryan Taylor says he’s been following her work for quite some time. “She seemed to have an aesthetic that could really help us take a piece like this and bring it forward in time in a way that was fun,” Taylor says.

The production “doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Taylor says. ‘It’s energetic. It is funny, the cast is having a great time playing.”

“Rinaldo” will be the first Minnesota Production in its new Luminary Arts Center in the North Loop, which had its grand opening earlier this fall and has hosted other rental productions. Part of the reason Minnesota Opera wanted to take over the former Lab Theater space, says Taylor, is the opportunities the space creates for the company.

In contrast to the Ordway, where the company normally presents its main stage performances, LAC has a much more intimate feeling. That works great for Baroque music.

Taylor likes presenting Baroque music at a large venue like the Ordway to performing an acoustic set in a large arena, rather than a coffee shop. The smaller space offers a different aesthetic, where a transparency exists in the music making.

“The kind of size of space makes a really big difference to your ear and to your body,” Taylor says. “It would seem a little ridiculous to do a piece like ‘Rinaldo’ over at the Ordway, just because the performance forces wouldn’t necessarily fill up the space.”

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The company has been interested in producing one of Handel’s operas. “Handel in particular has a lot of similar vocalism to bel canto work, which has been a hallmark of our company for some time,” Taylor says, citing the Italian vocal technique that means “beautiful singing.”

“We knew we had access to a group of singers that could manage that kind of florid vocal writing. It is really unique and really exciting to get to hear those voices up close,” Taylor says.

The majority of the singers in the show are a part of the Minnesota Opera Resident Artist Program, which employs emerging artists at the start of their careers. In the title role is Patrick Terry, a graduate of the University of Minnesota who went on to study and work in London. This will be one of his first lead roles for American audiences.

The young cast will take on Handel’s piece, which Taylor says is full of fantasy. “It seemed to fit our goals of being a piece of Baroque repertoire that we could perform in a very accomplished way,” Taylor says. And also give people an experience that is inspiring and magical.”

According to the Minnesota Opera, there will be tickets released ahead of performances. Call the box office at 612-333-6669 for availability Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The run is Thursday, Dec. 19 through Saturday, Dec. 3. (More information here.)

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