No Balm in Gilead

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A gray-haired, middle-aged man, stiffly correct in his vaguely military, possibly fascist, uniform, stands over the body of a young woman. Her floor-length habit and covered head would be nun-like were it not for the glaring scarlet. She's held between the legs of a stern-looking woman in a long blue dress, who grips her wrists as the man jerks and spasms and the orchestra blares out an obscenely rhythmical version of the gospel hymn Amazing Grace. Some sort of decadent cabaret, maybe? Not at all. What the audience in Copenhagen's Royal Theater is witnessing is the Ceremony: the impregnation of the Handmaid, a compulsory monthly ritual at the beginning of the 21st century in the Republic of Gilead--the country formerly known as the United States of America.

In Danish composer Poul Ruders' new opera Tjenerindens Fortælling, based on Canadian Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, the music, design and stagecraft combine to provide an exhilarating theatrical experience. When asked by Elaine Padmore, who was then artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, to write a new opera--the first commissioned in Denmark for 32 years--Ruders insisted upon Atwood's chilling depiction of a society in thrall to the religious right. Says Ruders: "It's basically a novel about, and a warning against, any form of intolerance--and then of course it's a manifest, a cry of anger at the oppression of women."

The government of Gilead enforces a brutal crackdown on freedoms, especially women's, restricting their functions to those of wives, servants and handmaids. The latters' role is to have babies for the childless, as inspired by the biblical example of Rachel who instructed her husband Jacob to conceive a child upon her handmaid Bilhah, who "shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her."

Atwood's novel takes the form of the secret diary of the handmaid, Offred, named after the official to whom she is assigned. The tale is interspersed with flashbacks to her life before she was torn from her husband and 5-year-old daughter. The problem of converting it into a coherent and effective opera is solved through Paul Bentley's moving and faithful libretto, which splits the lead role between two mezzo-sopranos: Hanne Fischer, wearing jeans and checked shirt, plays the happier Offred in her former life; Marianne Rørholm portrays the other in the scarlet robe of the handmaid in the most outstanding performance in an evening of all-round musical and theatrical excellence.

Ruders' music rises triumphantly to the challenge of this complex, uncomfortable novel. His orchestration is richly imaginative, the musical idiom varying widely to suit the text. It suggests the brutal theocracy of Gilead with music that alternates harsh dissonances and atonality with passages of sanctimonious piety. Ruders has scored a sumptuous lyricism for the love scenes--in Offred's memories as well as during an illicit affair she has in Gilead--but he uses a ribald outburst of wolf-whistles and shrieks from the orchestra for a scene in which Offred is subjected to an intimate examination by a doctor who offers to impregnate her. Another scene set in an undercover brothel gives a fine pastiche of cabaret honky-tonk.

The most moving sequence dramatizes Offred's memory of a game of hide and seek with her daughter. This music is full of naive joy, with popping corks and jingling tambourines as the little girl scampers around the stage, but the realization of Offred's terrible loss hits her and the orchestra quotes three bars from Bach's great song of love, Bist du bei mir. Says Ruders: "This moment is one of the most tortured in the whole opera; the tune itself is the greatest little song ever written; it's autonomous music; it's bound to convey this terrible eternal message to prepare for Offred's incredible cry of anguish."

Ruders and Bentley see in Atwood's 1978 novel an accurate forecast of the Taliban in Aghanistan, and they believe the story holds warnings for the West as well. Ruders cites the rise of religious fundamentalism in the U.S., which has religious educational institutions "where sober, dedicated intelligent people study, they prepare, for the New Jerusalem--or you could call it Gilead." Bentley views the opera as a forceful warning against a return of puritanism. The excellent performances in Copenhagen, the impressive contributions of British director Phyllida Lloyd and designer Peter McKintosh coupled with the strength of Bentley's libretto and the resplendent power of Ruders' score, make The Handmaid's Tale an operatic message that its audiences will be unable to ignore.