The changes made were, to this eye and ear, a breath of fresh air. Tim Nelson, the series’ innovative new 39-year-old director, juxtaposed Handel’s story of a Persian king with the work of the most famous Persian poet, Rumi. To this end he introduced a narrator, evocatively played by Jarrod Lee, in the persona of a poet delivering appropriate Rumi excerpts and helping the audience through the intricacies of the literally and figuratively baroque plot.
“Serse” is most famous for opening with a love song to a tree; Nelson managed to frame this episode, with heavy lifting from the narrator, as part of a kind of adolescent awakening in nature, which certainly made more sense than almost any other interpretation, even if the pruning in this case was so heavy that we got to hear only one verse of the most famous and beautiful aria in the opera — sung, like the rest of the performance, in English. Another nice touch was having Lee suddenly become part of the action, breaking into song in the role of the romantic go-between (a servant in Handel’s original version), opening a whole new door on a character that through entering the opera was at once diminished and humanized.
The problem is that “Serse,” even though Handel mingled comic and tragic elements in a way unusual at the time, remains a rather silly story. You have a crazy ruler and his brother, Arsamene, who both love the same woman, Romilda; Romilda and her sister, Atalanta, both love Arsamene. Nelson rightly allowed a lot of this to descend into slapstick — Dawna Warren’s Atalanta was particularly adroit at singing hard music while flinging herself around the stage — but didn’t downplay the creepiness of having an essentially unhinged ruler able to wreak his will on everyone around him.
“Serse” was also written, like most operas at the time, as a vehicle for voices, and it’s tricky for a small company such as the In Series to procure the kind of reliably virtuosic voices you need to really make it fly. The company did very respectably: Jaely Chamberlain as the adored Romilda sang with a gentle loveliness, and Madelyn Wanner was dark and ardent as Amastre, Serse’s original fiancee. But Cara Gonzalez, as Arsamene, had some notable intonation problems at the beginning, though she sang her way into an assured lower voice by the end of the performance, and Janna Critz sounded slightly thin as Serse. Lee’s baritone was rich though slightly fatigued (I saw the second performance, the afternoon after opening night, and everyone was presumably tired after singing for two days in a row).
Nelson palpably loves Handel’s music. He conducted himself, from the harpsichord, a five-piece instrumental ensemble, and he kept many of the da capo arias complete, with an eye to musical rather than dramatic integrity. The trouble with abridgment is that when you begin tinkering with the composer’s sense of timing, it throws off the pacing. Running at about two hours without an intermission, this piece did begin to drag, particularly as the poet told the audience that the story was nearly over when there was a good chunk of action left to go.
Still, examining the 18th-century fascination with the East through 21st-century eyes is an interesting way to move beyond mere stereotype in presenting some of the repertoire. We have the score; we don’t need to present it in its entirety at every hearing. And this adaptation, if it had its longueurs, still offered much food for thought and considerable fodder for enjoyment.
The Tale of Serse Through June 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. inseries.org.