The sold-out run of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that launched the Canadian Opera Company’s current season is just one more indication that general director Richard Bradshaw is cultivating an audience that hungers for more than a season of recycled chestnuts.
This stark, uncompromising work by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley was first seen at the Royal Danish Opera in 2000, then at English National Opera in 2003 and at Minnesota Opera Company later the same year.
Based on Toronto author Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 novel (turned into a 1990 film by Volker Schlondorff), “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a dystopian view of North American society in the 21st century. What was once the United States is now Gilead, a right-wing theocracy that rose from the ruins of a nation destroyed by ecological and political upheaval.
Because of a decline in fertility, women discovered to have been both biologically fertile and politically suspect in “the time before” were compelled after the revolution to become “handmaids,” whose duty was to bear children to families unable to conceive.
The opera is framed by a filmed prologue and epilogue (set in 2195) in which Professor Pieixoto (actor William Webster) reveals he will be sharing the newly discovered history of one of these handmaids, Offred (Stephanie Marshall).
After that, we’re plunged immediately into one of the most bizarre futurist scenarios ever conceived. Part religious fundamentalist enclave, part fascist military empire, Gilead is a world of paranoia, where one always lives in fear of what the “Eyes” will discover.
There are elements of George Orwell’s “1984” here, to be sure, as well as Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and other dystopian parables, but Atwood’s vision is unique and remains more potent than ever.
The author says she wrote the book during the rise of the Moral Majority in the early 1980s; back then, her apocalyptic view of America was considered striking but far-fetched. World events since then, however, have proved Atwood to be more than a bit of a prophet. In the wake of 9/11 and the Bush presidency, “The Handmaid’s Tale” now seems chillingly possible.
In the new world of Gilead, the handmaid Offred is sent to the home of the Commander (Kurt Link), one of the country’s most powerful men, whose wife, Serena Joy (Jean Stilwell), was once a gospel-singing superstar.
The Commander commits the unpardonable sin of becoming legitimately attracted to this woman who is supposed to be a mere sexual surrogate; his desires eventually lead all into disaster.
As this story is unfolding, we continue to learn of Offred’s history in “the time before,” when she fell in love with a married man and caused his divorce. We gradually see how the revolution eventually split this union apart and threw the couple into political disfavor.
Bentley’s libretto does an effective job of showing us both Offred’s present and past lives as well as constructing a world of ritual repression that can overflow into homicidal excess.
Through it all, composer Ruders supplies a taut, metallic score that helps drive the dramatic points home. The music may sound dry and overly dissonant to many ears, but it cannot be denied that it provides a compelling environment for Atwood’s tale.
The opera succeeds impressively as a piece of music theater, thanks to a skilled cast and a bravura staging by Phyllida Lloyd, well regarded as a classical theater and opera director in England, but better known in North America for having mounted Abba musical “Mamma Mia!”
Her work here couldn’t be more different from that hit tuner, and yet it achieves a similarly successful result. Lloyd has had the courage to see the work in boldly theatrical terms, unlike Schlondorff’s more realistic film.
The handmaids wear extravagant winged headpieces, similar to those once seen on French nuns, while the women in power wear Shaker-like gowns and the Commander and his cohorts have a decidedly sci-fi look.
Lloyd keeps this complex narrative moving convincingly and coherently on Peter McKintosh’s ever-revolving set.
In the wrong hands, the kind of outsized statements Lloyd is making could have courted the demons of inappropriate laughter, but the director makes sure that never happens here.
Her work with the cast is equally admirable. Canadian mezzo-soprano Marshall repeats her acclaimed London virtuoso turn as Offred and handles the assignment brilliantly. Her voice has a warmth that humanizes even some of Ruder’s chilliest music, while her dramatic skills put us firmly on her side.
She’s also comfortable with the uncompromising sensuality of the role, which includes a long sequence played topless and several graphically mimed scenes of intercourse.
Other strong perfs come from Link as the Commander, Krisztina Szabo as Offred in the flashback scenes, Stillwell as Serena Joy and Helen Todd as Aunt Lydia.
The choral work, under the direction of Sandra Horst, is superb. Bradshaw leads the orchestra with passion and finesse, displaying his ability to grasp the dramatic totality of an opera.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is not an easy work, but the splendid treatment and tremendous response it has gotten in Toronto augurs well for the Canadian Opera Company as it plans its move to the new Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, currently scheduled for 2006.