March 6 2000
The Royal Danish Orchestra
Michael Schønwandt, Conductor
Phyllida Lloyd, Instructor
Det kgl. Teater, Copenhagen, Denmark
by Paul Bentley:
AD 2195 - we are present at a worldwide videoconference: the Twelfth Symposium on the Republic of Gilead. In the first half of the 21st century the Bible Belt garrotted America. Appalled by widespread pollution - physical, moral and spiritual - and above all by the low birth rate, right-wing fundamentalists assassinated the President and the Congress and installed their own Bible-based dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. They denied women the right to work or possess property, to read or write. More: all women of childbearing age living in sin or second marriages were forcibly separated from their families and sent off to indoctrination centres, run by ‘Aunts'. There the women became Handmaids, due to be posted to selected childless households and ritually impregnated by the husband in the presence of his wife. Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge University introduces a recently discovered diary, recorded on audiocassettes by a Handmaid in hiding. He plays the first tape, and we hear her telling her tale ... She is torn from her husband Luke (it was his second marriage) and their five-year-old daughter and taken to the Red Centre.
THE RED CENTRE PRELUDE
Here the classes are run by Aunt Lydia. Our Handmaid's friend, Moira, is dragged back after a failed escape attempt. Another woman, Janine, breaks down and thinks she's a waitperson again. Moira escapes a second time. The other Handmaids graduate.
Three years later our Handmaid, who has not yet borne a child for Gilead, transfers to her third posting, where she is known as Offred (Of Fred), after the Commander of the house. She recognizes the Wife as Serena Joy, a Gospel singer in the Time Before. Offred goes shopping paired with another Handmaid, Ofglen, and they meet Janine, now heavily pregnant. When Offred visits the doctor he offers to impregnate her. She declines, fearfully. Back ‘home' handyman Nick tries to chat and the Commander approaches Offred's bedroom - both illegal acts. The household assembles for Forepray, and Offred undergoes her monthly ritual impregnation. Afterwards handyman Nick tells her the Commander wants to see her privately. Highly illegal. Next day all the Wives and Handmaids of the district meet at the Red Centre to celebrate the birth of Janine's baby. Back home Offred visits the Commander in his study at night. Afterwards in her bedroom Offred collapses, laughing hysterically.
Next morning Rita the servant finds Offred still prone, and over-reacts. Offred visits the Commander again and begins to relax; but then he caresses her during the next ritual impregnation and she is terrified Serena Joy will notice. Offred and Ofglen go prayer shopping and discover they are both rebels. Ofglen reveals that there is an underground movement. Janine (whose baby turned out to be defective and was exterminated) joins them but breaks down again. Guards take her away to be hanged. Offred's night visits to the Commander continue. He explains things - why Rita over-reacted, for instance. Child-hungry Serena Joy secretly bribes Offred to try getting pregnant by Nick. The bribe is a photo of her missing daughter. Offred has mixed feelings ... The Commander smuggles Offred into Jezebel's, a private brothel for top-ranking men in Gilead. She meets Moira there. Back home Offred and Nick make love. Often. Then Wives and Handmaids meet to witness the hanging of ‘criminals'. The Handmaids are allowed to destroy a ‘rapist'. Ofglen starts by kicking him unconscious to spare him pain - he was in fact part of the underground. That afternoon Offred finds she has a new shopping partner. Back home Serena Joy has learned about Offred's affair with the Commander. As Offred, Joy, the Commander and Rita react to this the secret police the "Eyes of God" arrive to arrest Offred and take her away.
Poul Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale - abstract:
In the far future, the year 2195, a box containing a number of audio cassettes from the beginning of the 21st Century suddenly appear, and the tapes are subsequently played at an International Historical Convention in Cambridge, England.
The tapes contain the secret diary of an anonymous woman who allegedly escaped from her position as involuntary, so-called Handmaid, at a privat home in the theocratic dictatorship of the republic Gilead, the former USA, around A.D. 2006.
We don’t know the Handmaid’s real name - only her given name of service: Offred.
The opera is based on Margaret Atwood’s famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale, libretto by Paul Bentley, music by Poul Ruders. In the opera, whose approximate duration is 2 hours and 30 minutes, Offred’s story is told at full operatic, dramatic throttle: large chorus, 15 soloists and full symphony orchestra. The world premiere took place in Copenhagen on 6 March 2000, directed by British Phyllida Lloyd, designs by Peter Mcintosh. Conductor: Michael Schønwandt. Opera House The Royal Danish Opera. The part of Offred was sung by mezzo Marianne Rørholm. Another important part, that of Offred’s boss, her ’Commander will be sung by bass-baritone Aage Haugland.
'Handmaid's Tale' makes powerful, relevant opera about intolerance... How refreshing to see a new opera that is actually relevant to the dangerous world we live in'
Michael Anthony, Star Tribune, 12/05/2003
...this well-conceived production restores confidence in the possibilities of contemporary opera as compelling theater
Thomas May, USA Today, 11/05/2003
The bleakly futuristic story line, astonishingly variegated orchestral palette and clear, vivid libretto seize your attention, provoke your sensibilities and engage rather that bait your emotions
, Schwann Inside, 12/06/2001
...he (Poul Ruders) found a grippingly operatic way to tell a story so loaded with polemics that it might have crushed a lesser composer
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, 10/06/2001