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Poul Ruders, The Handmaid’s Tale (North American Premiere), Minnesota Opera, 10th May 2003 (BH)

The Handmaid’s Tale
(North American Premiere)

Music by Poul Ruders
Libretto by Paul Bentley
After the novel by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The Minnesota Opera
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota
Conductor: Antony Walker
Stage director: Eric Simonson
Set and costume designer: Robert Israel
Lighting designer: Robert Wierzel
Offred, a Handmaid Elizabeth Bishop
Serena Joy, the Commander’s Wife Joyce Castle
Aunt Lydia Helen Todd
Offred’s Commander Gabor Andrasy
Offred’s Double, young Offred in the Time Before Megan Dey-Tóth
Luke, Offred’s husband in the Time Before Dennis Petersen
Nick, the Commander’s Guardian Daniel Montenegro
Rita, Serena Joy’s maidservant Anna Jablonski
Ofglen, a Handmaid Tracey Gorman
Moira, friend of Offred Karin Wolverton
Janine/Ofwarren, a Handmaid Genevieve Christianson
Offred’s mother Kathleen Humphrey
Doctor Dan Dressen
Professor James Darcy Pieixoto Matt Boehler
New Ofglen Sandra Henderson
Commander X Andrew Wilkowske
Moira’s Aunt Judy Bender
Warren’s Wife Karen Wilkerson
Offred and Luke’s daughter Maeve Moynihan

This highly anticipated production by the Minnesota Opera of Margaret Atwood’s celebrated book was, by any yardstick, one of the most invigorating and adventurous productions I have seen in some time, with imaginative direction, a very strong cast, and an insightful production team.

Beginning in the year 2195 with a brief narrated prologue, the stage darkens to show a brief newsreel-style documentary film, reporting the assassination of Congress and the President, the country’s subsequent descent into chaos, and the swift rise of a totalitarian theocracy. (My one quibble with the otherwise outstanding production is that I wish the film image here had been larger.) Then from out of the dark recesses of the back of the stage walked Offred (the extraordinary Elizabeth Bishop), with her sad, powerful opening lines, "I’m sorry my story is in fragments, I’m sorry I can’t change it, I’m sorry there is so much pain."

And the pain comes down in torrents, including scenes of Offred’s daughter and husband being torn away from her, multiple hangings (with the black-hooded, orange jumpsuit-clad bodies slowly lowered along the back wall of the stage), and a grim "particicution" -- a "participatory execution" -- in which a man accused of raping a pregnant woman is tortured, stomped and kicked to death. Led by the cattle-prod-wielding Aunt Lydia (deliriously played by Helen Todd), a circle of handmaids surround him after hearing his crime, and are then given approximately ten seconds to do to him whatever they wish.

Paul Bentley’s superb libretto slightly reorders the events in the book, constructed of a series of flashbacks from audiotaped diaries kept by Offred, abducted years earlier during the coup depicted in the opening film. Since much of the population has been rendered sterile by environmental disasters, the government has corralled all childbearing women, including Offred, to serve as "handmaids," forced to have sex with men whose wives are childless.

Robert Israel’s sets, inspired by the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, are filled with clinical dread, amplified by Robert Wierzel’s stark lighting, often using naked filament bulbs and bays of fluorescent tubes that rise and fall, mirroring the ebb and flow of the music. The black walls are spattered with white paint, creating a crudely assembled arena for torture, both mental and physical, as we discover later. A small clapboard shed, painted white with a black door, serves as the site for some of the opera’s atrocities, with a huge, ethereal painting of a Madonna and child on its interior back wall, a reminder of the society’s omnipresent religious core. Israel’s generally effective costumes clothed cast members from "the time before" in hazy chartreuse, recalling faded photographs, helped by Wierzel’s nostalgic, glowing lighting. (Interestingly, the same bilious green color was used for the surtitles accompanying these scenes, and helped to make them clearer.)

Ruders’ music is brutally effective, incorporating both lyrical and shrieking vocals, huge percussion climaxes, minimalist ostinatos, feverish electronic effects and bits of "Amazing Grace," but the wide-ranging score also finds room for its share of touching moments, such as when Serena Joy (Joyce Castle) decides to show Offred a photograph for which she has pleaded. When the heartbroken Offred first sees her long-lost daughter, a solitary violin echoes her inner desolation.

With a gaze that could melt steel, Castle ignited the stage as Serena Joy, the washed-up, cigarette-wielding gospel singer whose husband, the Commander, has sex with Offred. In a memorable scene near the opera’s end, Serena discovers lipstick on her favorite scarf, confronts Offred and denounces her as "just like the other one, a slut," pacing her stark accusation with a detached precision.

Megan Dey-Tóth, as Young Offred, had one of the score’s finest moments, a painfully touching duet with her counterpart from the future -- in effect, a duet with herself. Dennis Petersen managed to create sympathy as Luke, Offred’s doomed husband, and Dan Dressen made the most of his bizarre scene as an examination room doctor.

But in many ways the night belonged to the sensational Offred of Elizabeth Bishop, singing with tight focus and sending her resigned voice into the far recesses of the Ordway Center. Her stunning final scene was one of the evening’s highlights. Following her chilling "I have given myself over to the hands of strangers," delivered a cappella and dead-center, she was surrounded by members of the militia and slowly escorted upstage. In a thrilling bit of theater, the entire back wall slowly rose to reveal a life-size photograph of a grove of phosphorescent green trees. It may have been my imagination, but the color appeared to change to a natural, realistic green -- perhaps reflecting some optimism -- while Offred stood silently as the orchestra breathed its last haunting spasms.

Using the same English-language version as the recent London production, the texts were generally clear, except when overpowered by either the cruelly high vocal range or some of the more ferocious sound barrages. Conductor Antony Walker brought all the cold, throbbing details of Ruders’ score, and drew an emotionally charged and committed performance from the large orchestra. The composer, touchingly recalled to the stage by Maeve Moynihan (Offred and Luke’s daughter), received the most enthusiastic ovation of the night, from an enthralled opening night audience. This is easily one of the most shocking and powerful operas in recent memory, and in its swift, surgical precision, deserves to be widely produced to disseminate its all-too-timely and disturbing message.

Bruce Hodges

© 2003



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