Timothy Nelson has ended his first season as Artistic Director of In Series with a stunning and musically gorgeous production of The Tale of Serse. Like George Frideric Handel, the composer of the opera, Nelson is a synthetic artist who likes to tweak and merge disparate material to create radical new experiences for the operatic form and “captivate our own contemporary audiences.” Merging Handel’s baroque musical sensibilities with an homage to 13th century Persian poet Jalal al-Din Muhammed (better known in the west as Rumi) might seem a tall order, but Nelson has forged a shimmering meditation on love, both of the human and the spiritually-divine variety.
From his first day, Nelson has rocked the boat of this small organization by coming up with programming that mixed oddly combinations, creating unlikely juxtapositions of art forms and artists (Mozart with T.S. Eliot, Classic Spanish Zarzuela with a kind of political reality show spotlighting one of America’s most divisive issues of people crossing our southern border.) In this work, he has succeeded most fully in carrying us with him into his vision of opera for today’s world.
To think that it might never have happened. The opera has had a long journey. It was not originally a success produced in London in 1738. In fact, the librettist’s name is lost to history, it seemed such a negligible work.
The Tale of Serse from In Series closes June 9, 2019. Details and tickets
Fast forward to 2016, Nelson purports he was not particularly interested in the work when he was approached by another company to direct it. He kind of meandered his way into the piece, getting a handle on Handel if you will, through his passion for the great poet, born in what is now Afghanistan as Mowlana Jalaloddin Balkhi but claimed by and known as the Persian Jalal ad-Din Muhammed Balkhi.
Then there’s the challenge of length. Handel’s opera is over three hours. Nelson has managed to excise it to be performed without an intermission in two plus hours without creating a musical mash. He pays more than respect to the nuanced vocal style of baroque opera but, in switching out Baroque gesture (which would have made the opera a kind of Euro-centric museum piece) and replacing them with clean, minimalistic and very stylized gestures taken from ancient Persian miniatures and Islamic prayer, he has created a “classic” with an altogether original look.
With simple means, the Lang Theatre’s wide proscenium stage is covered by a handful of oriental carpets, creating a neutral playing space where the emphasis is placed on the story itself. On a raised walkway that runs along the back of the theatre, there is a sculptural element made of carved fretted wood pieces, and behind a blank wall space where mood is defined by color and (sometimes) projections, 8-10 graceful lamps reach from the stage out deeply into the auditorium uniting the space.
The instrumentalists, led by Nelson on harpsichord, making up the six-person orchestra, sit on the side of the stage in full view. He carries the show, moving singers and orchestra alike through the score with spirited energy.
Nelson has assembled a highly talented ensemble of singers who deliver the goods on Handel. The whole organization of the piece is through mostly da capo arias, these a-b-a solos with the repetition of “a” section providing opportunity for the singers to create variety through individual improvised ornamentation. Often in the staging, a singer will drift and sit, back to Nelson, sharing his bench. We experienced deeply the communication between them, and the sheer honesty in the sweet delivery of Handel’s music, all clearly intentional in the service of the story.
At the center of what is called a considered a comic opera are two pairs of siblings. King Serse (Xerxes) and his brother Arsamene begin a jealous feud, when Serse seeks his brother’s help in securing a woman, Romilda, whom he espies and instantly wants as concubine or wife. Romilda, whose beautiful voice has captivated the king is, in fact, betrothed to the king’s brother, who warns her about Serse’s intentions. Romilda has a sister Atalanta, who, it turn out, also has her heart set on Arsamene.
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Amastre comes to spy on Serse, and we learn she was first betrothed to the king. She threatens to upset the whole palace when later she launches into a vengeful rage. Meanwhile, sisters Romilda and Atalanta go at each other in jealous rivalry, delivering a full-fledged, show-stopping catfight that is sheer theatrical perfection. Then Amastre threatens to kill herself. There’s heartbreak enough to go around for everyone.
If this weren’t complex enough, there is plenty of what is now called “gender fluidity” to make one’s head spin! The two brothers, Serse and Arsamene, who originally might have been castrati singers with that high head-voice thing which was all the rage and created rock star “phenoms” of the time, are played in this production by women. Amastre, the jilted betrothed to Serse, is supposed to come disguised as a man (though not clearly so this version,) but she does leap out of the audience and stride into the world of the court.
This work might have remained a little romantic farce but for Nelson devising a character and expanding the role the king’s servant, Elviro, to be a kind of court poet-philosopher (aka Rumi.) Elviro wanders through the proceedings and seemingly wafts extemporaneously, meditating on the highs and lows of romantic love, on nature, on poetry and music, and on divine love itself.
Jarrod Lee is the poet and the only performer whose voice is mic’ed. It gives him the advantage of being able to keep his ruminations intimate, present yet never disruptive. Opera bass-baritone Lee has a beautiful spoken voice, rich in tone and expressive, and it is a deep pleasure to hear Rumi’s poetry come to life. His physicalization captures our imagination, embodying a character of great dignity and wisdom, moving through this world as a mystic, whose business is connecting earth to the divine. At one point, as a flower seller, he sings an aria, which if not as delicately Handelian in style as the others, shows us his vocal giftedness, and integrates Nelson’s ensemble vision of this original work.
Nelson’s supreme stylistic choices, with his framing and gestural language, has sidestepped the potential criticism of the opera as Eurocentric and “orientalist,” because certainly Handel cared not a fig about borrowing stories or usurping cultural perspectives (‘Who gets to tell the story?” was not an 18th century conversation.) Nelson has done this with a kind of respectful intelligence, wit, and even modesty.
The singers brought an exemplary pool of talent to this work. The cast members were highly disciplined and able to support the musical style without ever pushing the sound. All the singers let the music carry their intentions and emotions. The diction of every one of the singers was fabulous. The use of appoggiatura (the bending of pitches to affect emotion, a hallmark of this period’s vocal style,) was lovely, while each of the singers found acceptable ways to deliver the steep register shifts, be it superior technique of appropriate character choices in phrasing.
As actors, the four lovers had to play both full-on passion and at the same time comedy of their situation. Jaely Chamberlain (Romilda,) Janna Critz (Serse,) Cara Gonzales (Arsamene,) and Dawna Warren (Atalanta) were all terrific, and each found a way to make moments of comedy come to life in believable ways.
Critz knocked my socks off with her command of King Serse’s character and proved a wizard of Handel’s ornamentation. Chamberlain, with a smaller instrument perhaps, affected me deeply with both her nuanced characterization and phrasing. Warren went wild with that (high) coloratura, rapturous sound, and she seemed fearless throwing herself into any directed action without ever missing one breath-taking run. Gonzales, as the “royal brother,” who championed, pouted, raged, and stomped around as an alpha-male has never been better.
Madelyn Wanner as Amastre was perhaps more confined by her role as the classic vengeful women on a rampage, but she served the role well with appropriately dark colors and commanding presence on stage. Anthony Zwerdling, father to the quarreling sisters, played the Mullah and returning war hero, held his own in his smaller role in this top-notch ensemble.
The opera pays homage to Rumi and Handel simultaneously. The ensemble has shown us how two worlds can be brought together. What could be more desired – or needed?
The Tale of Serse . Music by George Frideric Handel. Text Collage by Timothy Nelson. Stage Director and Conductor Timothy Nelson. Set Design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting Design by Marianne Meadows. Resident Costume Designer Donna Breslin.With Jaely Chamberlain, Janna Critz, Cara Gonzales, Jarrod Lee, Madelyn Wanner, Dawna Warren, and Anthony Zwerdling. Stage Managed by Cindy King. Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.