The Handmaid's Tale
Royal Danish Orchestra
& Chorus/Michael Schonwandt with cast of Danish singers headed by Marianne
Da Capo 8.224165-66
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 Ofred, in her quest to recover
the five-ear 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 Ofred 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 Ofreds 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