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Poul Ruders The Handmaid's Tale

Royal Danish Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Schonwandt with cast of Danish singers headed by Marianne Rorholm
Da Capo 8.224165-66
[78+66 mins]

This opera is set in a post-revolutionary fundamentalist America after assassination of the President in 2002, and creation of the ruthless Bible-based dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. It purports to look back on these events from a world-wide video conference in 2195. Paul Bentley's libretto is based on Margaret Attwood's bleak, futuristic novel, and there are obvious resonances with Iran & Afghanistan, projected onto the Western world.

The opera is modernistic but no way repellently so. It has traditional elements of aria and chorus, and ensembles in which characters voice their feelings independently. Importantly, the vocal lines are singable and the chilling story is easy to follow in the parallel Danish (a beautiful-sounding language) and English.

The plight of the central Handmaid Offred (Marianne Rorholm), in her quest to recover the five-year old daughter who had been snatched from her and her husband under the new dispensation, is plausible and poignant. Past and present are enacted, with a double, Hanne Fischer, representing Offred in flashbacks to her former life; the two sing together in some scenes, and especially in a moving 'duet for one' in the second act, in which the two Offreds grieve together for the loss of her/their daughter. No consolation at the end in the ambiguous, open-ended conclusion, but an absorbing journey into a terrifying but far from impossible world scenario

Ruders deploys a huge modern orchestra, including organ, synthesisers and exotic percussion, with vivid imagination and deploys his complex sound palette with great skill and unfailing interest. The performance and recording (live from the Royal Danish Theatre in March 2000) sounds exemplary to my ears.

The fully illustrated, 268 page booklet is as comprehensive as one can expect, with a selection of rehearsal photographs. It is a parable for our times and a good contemporary opera for home listening.

Peter Grahame Woolf
[(CD review from Music on the Web)]

British premiere, English National Opera The Coliseum, London, 3 April 2003

This is a personal report about my own experience of this opera at the Coliseum, after having got to know it first on CDs.

Readers will have had many opportunities to ponder the political implications of The Handmaid's Tale from other reviews of the opera. Margaret Attwood's popular novel, written c.1984, has become 'a cultural reference point' (21,400 references on Google!). The author describes it as 'speculative fiction' like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley's Brave New World, a genre which deals 'with human arrangements in an imagined future'; now very close to today.

High expectations were raised for this Danish/English co-production, which has now reached London at ENO, but for us they were dashed by a familiar problem; poor audibility (even from good circle seats) of opera texts, which are set ungratefully for singing by so many contemporary composers. This topic of audibility, and the pros and cons of surtitles, is one that I have returned to repeatedly in Seen&Heard, and seemingly will need to continue doing so.

Poul Ruders uses two contemporary music languages to separate his ongoing story of a few years ago from flashbacks to before the demise of USA and foundation of the puritanical, fundamentalist Gilead. The libretto crucially utilizes the language of film and Ruders, who was new to opera, had to be taken by Paul Bentley to see a Sondheim musical before he could be persuaded that it might work on stage with simple lighting changes.

The programme - compiled before our present war was launched - suggests that the tale is thoroughly topical for present-day USA, whereas UK got over its puritan tendencies with Cromwell and isn't minded to repeat it now. (Fascinating that this opera should hit the stage just after the brilliant treatment of Handel's Susanna at Guildhall School.)

Fatally, the premises of Margaret Atwood's vision of a Utopia of sorts is established in the opera by 'Aunt Lydia', cast as a high soprano, a voice which has fascinated more than others so many 20 Century composers. Ruders set the libretto bilingually, coping himself with linguistic differences which militate against sustained notes ('love' in English requires three syllables in Danish). All that labour was necessary because Denmark's Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, has the same policy of opera in the vernacular as does ENO. (Had The Handmaid's Tale been taken on by Covent Garden - in whichever language - we'd have had surtitles, as for Billy Budd in English there, and then I should have written a quite different review!)

This is a very literary opera; crucial scenes are set by their words, not by what we see in this restless production, with an army of scene-shifters constantly moving pieces of furniture around. For example, in a land where reading is banned, the heroine is startled to discover in her Commander's office loaded bookshelves; on stage, no bookshelves, so if you missed the word 'books' you would not get what they were on about (no problem when following the libretto in the thick book with the CDs, complete with evocative stage directions and photos of the Copenhagen production). As with many a novel, the visual realization may best be left to the mind's eye?

The orchestra under Elgar Howarth acquitted itself well, and the stage management was smooth. But during the evening of the London premiere, too much attention and energy was taken up by just trying to keep up with the not too clear sequence of short scenes. The singing was fully professional but the [Picture:STEPHANIE MARSHALL as OFFRED] roles sounded unrewarding and, with words mostly unintelligible, none of it lingers in the memory, nor did I become emotionally involved in the opera house as I had been on the Danish CDs.

It is not appropriate to expect a first night audience to have known a novel, studied all the essays in a programme book, or for critics (who pick up their tickets on arrival) to have read beforehand the libretto, as a Perfect Wagnerite might; one would ideally need a full hour and a good memory to do so.

How to characterise the music? It is mostly 'accessible-modernist', the orchestral score dense, with the vocable parts made 'singable' and relatively easy to pitch, but often drowned with noise. Puccini, Strauss & Berg are quoted by Ruders' as his influences; there are direct quotes of Amazing Grace & from Bach, with Bernstein not far behind. Contrasting musical idioms are used to tell us when we are in flashback, and give light aural relief in the secret night club scene.

However all that came through to Margaret Attwood's fans at ENO, or to newcomers to her story, it does make sense on the CD, recorded live at Copenhagen, with the voices a little forward and extremely clear. Today I gave myself the pleasure of revisiting The Handmaid's Tale at home and rehearing the second act, following the singing in Danish easily from the English only libretto supplied at ENO (larger print than in the CD book). It cast its spell again, engaging ear and mind.

In conclusion, I suspect that this is really a 'film-opera', which awaits a DVD to satisfy the wider audience at which it is aimed. The music is more 'contemporary' than Carl Davis's scores for silent film revivals with full orchestra, a highly successful concert genre, but is it more likely to endure than those? Assuming staged productions will remain infrequent, I doubt if it will achieve a longer life as a concert suite, which many composers are persuaded to essay for survival of their more esoteric stage music.

On DVD (creating one must be in mind?) we would move more fluently and less confusingly around the four little rooms in The House, and the focus would be more sharply focused on the individual singers and the poignancy of their predicaments; even more topical now with the extremes of fundamentalism, of whatever hue, a dominant factor in how this century turns out. The human centre of Atwood's vision nearly passed us by at the Coliseum, only in part because of the generally 'cool' presentation in the opera house within a filmed 'lecture' framework.

To make up your own minds, The Handmaid's Tale is in repertory at ENO, seven performances until 2 May. If you are unable to see it, I recommend acquiring the da capo CDs and if possible the ENO programme book too; ENO has also a free sampler CD including interview with the production team and author Margaret Atwood. If it is ever revived or mounted elsewhere, sur-titles should be axiomatic.

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf