Magazine article Opera Canada

New Productions/new Roles: The Canadian Opera Company Presents the Canadian Premiere of the Handmaid's Tale by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley

Magazine article Opera Canada

New Productions/new Roles: The Canadian Opera Company Presents the Canadian Premiere of the Handmaid's Tale by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley

Article excerpt

The Canadian Opera Company launches its 2004-05 season with the Canadian premiere of a startling recent opera based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale. The composer is Danish, Poul Ruders, while the librettist, Paul Bentley, is English. For the opera's world premiere in Copenhagen on March 6, 2000, the composer translated the text into Danish (the version heard on the DaCapo CD of the opera). This production proved so successful it has already been revived. In April 2003, English National Opera performed it in the original English libretto, which the COC is using for its production. Minnesota Opera presented the North American premiere in Fall 2003. By present-day standards, the opera has already achieved widespread exposure.

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Not that it is an easy work to encounter. Quite the contrary. As with Atwood's dystopia, the opera confronts us with a deeply unsettling vision of a police state known as the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States. A series of disasters, notably earth-quakes along the San Andreas fault, has caused nuclear power plants to explode, spreading radioactivity and toxic wastes far and wide. In the resulting instability, a fundamentalist Christian group seizes power, executes the President and the Congress, and imposes a right-wing dictatorship. The few women still capable of child-bearing are forced to become Handmaids--"two-legged wombs" to breed children for sterile, upper-echelon families. Such is the appalling predicament of Offred ("Of Fred"), the sexual chattel of one of the Commanders. The opera traces her story so far as it can be subsequently reconstructed. Clearly, we are far from the traditional world of opera.

Paul Bentley has done a brilliant job of adapting a complex, first-person narration to the very different needs of the stage. The structure of the novel is captured in a prologue and two acts that unfold in a number of scenes that Bentley has carefully crafted so that scenes in one act echo scenes in the other. Bentley has simplified the chronology and divided the leading character into two figures: Offred, who sings in the present time of Gilead (approximately the end of the 20th century) and her Double, who sings in the time before the revolution. In the COC production, the young Canadian soprano, Stephanie Marshall, reprises the role of Offred, which she sang for ENO, with Krisztina Szabo as the Double. Jean Stilwell will sing the part of Serena Joy, wife of the Commander, Fred, while Helen Todd sings the role of Aunt Lydia, which is deliberately cast in an uncomfortable range of the voice to suggest repression.

COC General Director Richard Bradshaw conducts an orchestra augmented by 18 players for a total of 74. While the strings remain at normal strength, the score calls for a doubling of brass and woodwind. Five percussionists will handle the many unusual instrumental demands, and digital keyboards also supplement the orchestral forces. The chorus will also expand beyond the usual 20 male and 20 female voices with the addition of eight women.

As is often the case with contemporary operas, the score is highly eclectic, drawing upon sources as diverse as medieval chant, J.S. Bach and jazz. The music moves from the merest whisper to an overpowering force. Despite the diverse idioms employed in the music, Bradshaw regards the opera as a "rather traditional piece" structurally--very well written for the orchestra, though with some problematic aspects in the vocal parts. Sustained high-lying passages have given rise to issues of intelligibility, for example, and the dual-language origin of the work presents its own challenges. "This is a piece that was written in English by Margaret Atwood, was adapted to a libretto in English by Bentley, then translated into Danish by the composer, who composed the music to the Danish text," says Bradshaw. …

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