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Review: In Series' Ambitious THE TALE OF SERSE at Atlas

Review: In Series' Ambitious THE TALE OF SERSE at Atlas

Rare as it is to hear Handel's opera "Serse" at all - it was scarcely performed at all for 200 years following its 1738 debut - it's even more unusual to hear it melded to the poetry of Rumi, the Sufi mystic who predated the composer by half a millennium.

But it was long the dream of Timothy Nelson to bring the two together, and as new artistic director of the In Series, he succeeds by closing his first season with his "text collage" of the piece, serving as director, conductor and harpsichordist in "The Tale of Serse" a lavish meeting of East and West at the Atlas Performing Arts Theatre.

And yet, it's not so far afield of what George Frideric Handel may have intended with his Italian work. It was set in Persia, with a story modeled on Xerxes I of Persia. And while the In Series production may be surprising in its use of a couple of mezzo-sopranos, Janna Critz and Cara Gonzales, as the lightly bearded Prince of Persia and his brother, Handel's original production included castrati in the roles, so the soaring higher harmonies are not unusual to hear from the two male characters.

In a production with fewer than usual male voices, then, the presence of Jarrod Lee as a kind of poet / narrator is a steadying presence, not only in parsing out the still potent words of Rumi, but in moving the story along - and cutting it drastically from the original three hours by simply stating the explication rather than showing it.

Lee also sings a bit, expanding from the original role of Elviro, merely a servant, into a kind of mediator among the coupling, uncoupling and jealousies that what was once considered a lighter comedy. But with Lee dropping the truth of love from the words of Rumi, there is a bit more weight to the piece.

In addition to all of his other responsibilities in "The Tale of Serse," Nelson also translated the whole thing into English, bypassing the need for supertitles. While doing so, he kept the language simple, perhaps to match the direct words of Rumi, but also repeated lines in the manner that Handel repeats refrains in his baroque style.

And what music it is. The opening aria contains one of Handel's most enduring melodies. And the production with sturdy singing throughout is backed by a splendid six-piece chamber group behind Nelson, with two violins, a viola, a cello and oboes.

Women shine in the production, from to the object of love between the brothers, soprano Joley Chamberlain, to mezzo Madelyn Wanner and the striking coloratura Dawna Rae Warren.

As a result, Anthony Zwerdling, as father to two women, is quite outnumbered as the male bass voice.

But everybody dons white skirts for a bit of whirling, dervish style.

It's a surprisingly strong effort from a modest company, both in ambition and execution.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson's set involved hanging Persian calligraphy and projected texts on the back wall, but a wooden construction meant to represent a tree in the first act and the bridge between Asia and Europe Xerxes is said to have first built in 480 AD may have been projecting too much on the scene.

Running time: Two hours, no intermission.

Photo credit: Dawna Rae Warren in "The Tale of Serse." Photo by Angelisa Gillyard

"The Tale of Serse" by the In Series continues through June 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Theatre, 1333 H St NE. Tickets at 202-204-7763 or online. It moves to the Baltimore Theatre Project, 35 West Preston St., Baltimore June 14-16.

From This Author - Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in and AARP the Magazine. He has... (read more about this author)

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