The first words of an as yet unknown narrator in Margaret Atwood’s haunting and popular dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale make it clear that the opening scene takes place in a basketball gym. “We slept in what once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood with stripes and circles painted on it for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, although the nets were gone.” We soon learn that the “we” who were sleeping there were women of child-bearing age who had been torn away from friends and family (even husbands and children) to become the “handmaids” of the dominating male leaders of a puritanical form of government that has taken over a large part of the former United States by assassinating the president and Congress, and renaming itself the Republic of Gilead. Nuclear waste and ecological destruction have created a world in which most women cannot bear children, nor can all men impregnate them.
Gradually as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the location of this basketball gym and much of the story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ironically turning a presumed bastion of logic and clarity into a hub of violence and irrationality.
How appropriate, then, and how wonderful, that the Boston Lyric Opera chose to perform the powerful operatic version of the novel, with music by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, on a brilliantly crafted libretto by Paul Bentley, in the precise basketball court that might have been Atwood’s inspiration for the opening scene of her novel.
It is always a challenge to convert a serious novel full of dramatic incident into theatrical form, yet Bentley seems to have met that challenge brilliantly, casting the script into a flexible series of short scenes that flow smoothly into one another, sometimes including flashbacks of scenes when the leading character (who has been given the name Offred – “of Fred” – to connect her to the Master to whom she is assigned, and who will repeatedly attempt to impregnate her in a form of ritualized rape) remembers her husband and young daughter, who have been torn away from her. Paul Bentley’s words and scene division move the plot forward, allowing for varied music with no plot holes that might be the risk of such a complicated story.
With the large space of the basketball court available (audience seated on three sides, the orchestra on the fourth at court level, behind a low curtain, but still visible), director Anne Bogart has made the action flow smoothly and rapidly over the three-hour course (including intermission) of the opera. Scenes not only flow in and out rapidly, but occasionally two scenes are running together, one of them happening in the memory of Offred. The playing effectively uses the entire large space available, though most often in sections, with a small number of singers, and occasionally filling the entire space with virtual hordes of characters. The elaborate movement direction was by Shura Baryshnikov.
Ruders’s music is both savage and (sometimes) sweet. The large orchestra, superbly conducted by David Angus, takes on successfully the frequent challenges of the severe and unsparing score. (Having supertitles in English is especially helpful when the orchestra is called upon to be particularly shrill and the singers must spend powerful phrases in the high end of their registers.) Yet the score also offers a great deal of variety in style, ranging from occasional quotations of melodies redolent of gospel hymns (“Amazing Grace”) or Bach chorales (or the song “Bist du bei mir”, all of which become implicated in the intense passions of the leaders of the Republic of Gilead. A strikingly different passage is the intrusion of big-band jazz sounds into the atmosphere of the nightclub scene in which Fred takes Offred (a violation of the laws of Gilead). Most striking and moving of all is the substantial scene late in the second act in which Offred encounters (in memory) her younger self, the happily married woman with husband and daughter, and the two women sing a spare yet warm duet in which occasionally they sing alternate words in the phrase, as if the two are one (which, of course, they are).
James Schuette’s sets on the basketball court consist of individual pieces of furniture as needed (bed, desk, nightclub elements, etc.), to be moved on and off flexibly as needed. The most harrowing elements of the film version recently streamed on Hulu, the public hanging of so many handmaidens and other characters for crimes against the religious government of Gilead, is thankfully presented as projections on the back wall. Schuette’s costumes were closely patterned after those of the Hulu film and earlier representations: the handmaids are essentially turned into non-persons with red robes covering all but their heads, and a white cap on top of the head. The white caps seen in the film version, which essentially obliterate the identity of each woman, were not practical for a performance in which the handmaids must sing and watch for the conductor’s cue, so they were much smaller, but gave the requisite effect.
The most effective element of Brian Scott’s lighting design was the representation of havoc or rebellion with a series of red and white spotlights mounted high around the square of the stage that rotated quickly and flashed when sound designer J Jumbelic’s sirens went off.
The Handmaid’s Tale calls for a large cast—sixteen named characters and another dozen or so variously representing handmaids, aunts (older women committed to the idea of Gilead, who train the handmaids in their required behavior), Marthas (house servants), and guards.
The cast was superb from top to bottom. This was especially the case with the two largest roles, the most demanding dramatically and vocally. Jennifer Johnson Cano aroused deep pity for her sufferings and losses as Offred, and Caroline Worra aroused the kind of hatred that a great villain creates as Aunt Lydia, the brutal and uncaring trainer of Offred. Both of them were required to make heavy demands on their upper register and their most forceful singing at the many intensely dramatic moments. Ms Cano was also especially moving in the interior dialogue with her earlier self, as was Felicia Gavilanes, who played the Offred of her earlier life.
The Commander, David Cushing, the master of Offred, publicly maintained his firm military stance, though he clearly desired her in ways the rules did not allow. His wife, Serena Joy (Maria Zifchak), seemed to accept Offred until she realized that her husband was pursuing her on the side. The rest of the household included the servant Nick (Omar Najmi), Rita (Lynn Torgove), and Ofglen (Michelle Trainor), all first-rate. Offred’s family, seen in her memories of escape, included her mother (Dana Beth Miller), husband Luke (Jesse Darden), and daughter (Beatrice Eddy, alternating with Samanta Williston), were mostly involved in scenes of running and capture to music of tense energy. The remaining soloists included Matthew DiBattista as the doctor who offered to impregnate Offred to assure she would not be sent away as barren, and several other handmaids: Ofwarren (Kathryn Smemp Moran), who gave birth to a child that did not survive long, and a new Ofglen (Vera Savage), who mysteriously replaced Offred’s original friend. Finally Moira (Chelsea Basler), who was punished in an early scene for a minor infraction, escaped and turned up as one of the available women at the nightclub.
This large cast of characters, with their intertwining sorrows and the decisions forced on them to stay alive, made for an intense evening, converting Margaret Atwood’s powerful novel into an effective, strong opera, exceptionally well presented here. Kudos to Boston Lyric Opera for a truly effective production of a powerful modern work.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.