Tale Of A Country Where Everyone Is Evil Or Doomed

Aunt Lydia (Caroline Worra) leads the handmaids through prayers in Poul Ruders’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ performed by Boston Lyric Opera in the Harvard University basketball gymnasium. (Photos by Liza Voll)
By Keith Powers

BOSTON – A new staging of The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an unlikely venue – the Harvard University basketball court.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sings Offred.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel actually does set some scenes in that very space – the Lavietes Pavilion. The Boston Lyric Opera used that symbolic thread, and a team of venerable artists, to cast the audience into the black world of Atwood’s fascist theocracy, where men rule, women obey – and other women make sure they do.

David Angus conducted the prolific Danish composer Poul Ruders’ score, a setting of Paul Bentley’s libretto. The opera premiered in Copenhagen in 2000, and has had a previous staging in the United States, at the Minnesota Opera in 2003. The esteemed Anne Bogart made her Boston Lyric directorial debut, as did movement director Shura Baryshnikov. With Atwood and Ruders in the room as well, the opening matinee had the feeling of a real event. Even if it was in a gym.

The Handmaid’s Tale switches between two eras: the Time Before, visited in flashbacks, and the harrowing rule of current day Gilead. A Christian-right group has assassinated all the politicians and taken control. We see only a corner of the society, but from that corner nuclear destruction is apparent, and autocratic rules have been imposed. The rules come with coded language – “unborn,” “gender traitor” – that speaks volumes.

In Atwood’s sanitized theocracy, the white men (no diversity here) are the assumed rulers, but it’s the castes of women – breeders, servants, and wives – who reveal the story of their self-ruled subjugation. It’s a female enforcement state, emboldened by religion and driven by desperation. In Gilead, everyone is evil, or doomed.

Ofglen (Michelle Trainer), left, and Offred (Jennifer Johnson Cano), take their daily walk in the fascist Republic of Gilead.

The women are sorted into wives (sterile), handmaids (they better be fertile or else) and the rest, who work in radioactive waste sites or as whores. The men – hardly a factor in the narrative itself, but clearly villainous in the whole enterprise – are fornicators.

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Soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sang the part of the handmaid Offred, now familiar from the acclaimed novel, or the film, or the television series. Her role dominated, and her energy and purposeful, confident singing led the way for a terrific set of stage-mates.

Rebellious Moira (Chelsea Balser) tells Offred of her plan to escape.

Soprano Caroline Worra (an enforcer Aunt), soprano Chelsea Basler (the rebellious Moira), tenor Jesse Darden (Offred’s Time Before husband), and mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes (Offred’s double, from the Time Before) all supported with distinctive voices. There were others, and the chorus (prepared by Brett Hodgdon) also sang and acted stoutly.

The unlikely venue proved unwieldy in ways. The Boston Lyric Opera turned the space into a theater-in-the-square, with one of the sides reserved for the orchestra. The broad playing area was covered with antiseptic steel. Bright fluorescents and generic house lighting predominated. Blaring sirens and flashing strobes reminded that oppression was everywhere.

All that was effective, appropriate to the fearsome society of Gilead. As was the jackboot choreography: straight marches, crisp turns, formations. But because of the huge stage and long, visible entryways, there was far too much coming and going. It was like watching a marching band sometimes.

The novel, written as a hectic series of episodes and flashbacks, proved unwieldy as a source as well. Bentley’s libretto maintains the short-focus, back-and-forth style. He added the character of Offred’s Time Before double, a crucial touch. But with so many characters, the action got dizzying. Scorecards were helpful, and the projected English subtitles proved necessary for English lyrics.

Ruders’ bracing, inventive, and robustly orchestrated score is almost too good for the wretched society depicted. The orchestral music is filmic, in the most complimentary sense. The score is through-composed without even a snippet of inaction; it seemed like all the musicians in the orchestra were playing all the time – even at ppp.

Ofwarren (Kathryn Skemp Moran) prepares for  childbirth.

Ruders’ orchestration is dense and precise; dissonances have a place, as do sweetness and airy melody. Arias are in short supply – the most moving solo is Offred’s “Every month I look for blood” – but a steady stream of inventive musical ideas accompanies the mostly declaimed lyrics.

The flashback style works in some ways, as in a poignant duet, sung by Offred and her Time Before double. But when the forced separation of the Time Before family gets reenacted three times, or when a minor character, the schizophrenic Janine, diverts the story, it works less well. There are too many characters in the opera, helping to fill the vast stage but compromising the narrative momentum.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not really the story of Gilead, a horrid, stark society that’s almost a caricature of fascism. It’s the story of Offred, navigating her present and mourning her past. And even though Cano was heroically onstage nearly the entire time, singing her role magnificently, there were too many distractions from Offred’s tale.

The Boston Lyric Opera stages Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge through May 12. For tickets and information, go here.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com