Chicago Opera Theater’s decision to throw a play-within-a-play frame around Giuseppi Verdi’s mid-19th-century opera Joan of Arc solved a heap of problems for the ever-scrappy company, faced with having to deliver on an audience selection made several years ago, before the arrival of current general director Andreas Mitisek.

With the frame in place:

No need to spend money on sets! Just make it an ad hoc production by a bunch of amateurs who wouldn’t be expected to be working on anything more than an empty stage.

No worries about casting! The king can’t be heard over the orchestra? Joan is old enough to be her own mother? The vocal demands of an innovative score aren’t always perfectly met? All the better, since the performers aren’t supposed to be musical professionals at all, but just your ordinary 21st-century religious fanatics, participating in a church production.

No obligation to make sense of a wildly inaccurate plot! The libretto, by Temistocle Solera, fabricates a romantic attraction between the famously chaste warrior maiden and the King of France, turns Joan’s father into her deluded betrayer, and replaces her iconic death by fire with a battle wound. Its faults, including stodginess, are the usual explanation for the fact that the work’s been so rarely produced that most opera fans have never seen it. But the conceit here is that a cult built on unquestioning faith (and the rejection of earthly pleasure) might find inspiration in this version of Joan’s story, and might stage it as religious spectacle. It’s a stretch, but so was that libretto.

And, although critics are savaging the concept (some even more than others), at Saturday night’s opening it looked to me like it was working surprisingly well. Director David Schweizer, who’s taking the credit/blame for injecting a religious sect into this already loopy opera, picked up on the inherent campiness of both the libretto and a score that tends to waltz off into a happy lilt while the story’s mired in crisis. Everything in this production, from the orange plastic sheet that denotes a bloody battle field to the climactic blaze of light that reflects off the saint-to-be, is over-the-top—which makes for some compelling and entertaining viewing.

The single disappointment worth carping about is tenor Steven Harrison. As Charles VII, Harrison was wooden and so volume challenged it was hard to resist a shout-out to the stagehands: “For God’s sake, give that king a mike!” Soprano Suzan Hanson, an appealing actor and a strong singer, soldiered through some tricky paces (including a few literal fits of religious rapture) to turn in a winning performance as Joan. But the real treat was baritone Michael Chioldi, who sang gorgeously as Joan’s father, Giacomo, and was perfect as the sly, charismatic cult leader, pulling the strings for the whole shebang.

This is a much larger production than COT usually attempts, with a 24-member chorus drawn from the company’s young artists’ program, and the New Millennium Orchestra, conducted by Francesco Milioto. It’s also a fine example of effective shoestring staging: kudos to set designer Jack Magaw, costume designer Janice Pytel, and, especially, lighting designer Keith Parham, who conjures up a fiery stake and heaven’s light.

As for the extra little jolt at the end, it’s clearly meant to be a symbol of something we’re seeing a lot of right now—the potential for violence fueled by religious fanaticisim, of whatever variety. It doesn’t hurt to remember that when Joan went to war for Charles, the Crusades were recent history.

There are three more chances to see what all the fuss is about: performances continue at 7:30 PM tonight and Friday and at 3 PM Sunday at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets are $35 to $125, available at 312-704-8414 or