THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley, adapted from the Margaret Atwood novel, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, conducted by Richard Bradshaw, with Stephanie Marshall, Helen Todd, Jean Stilwell, Kurt Link, Victor Micallef, Krisztina Szabó and Frédérique Vézina. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company and SuperDanish at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East). Runs October 1, 5 and 9 at 7:30 pm. $40-$175, discounts for youth and those 18 to 29. 416-872-2262. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
You won't leave The Handmaid's Tale humming any of its original tunes. You will, though, take away a series of strong theatrical images and memories of a powerful production.
Based on Margaret Atwood 's novel about a not-too-futuristic dystopia in the United States, run by the military as a theocratic dictatorship, Poul Ruders 's opera (English libretto by Paul Bentley ) follows Offred, one of the handmaids whose sole function is to produce offspring for highest-ranked commanders.
As she remembers her happier past in The Time Before, we catch glimpses of romantic moments and the build-up to the government takeover. The contrast between past and present is one of the strengths of the production, skilfully directed by Phyllida Lloyd .
Peter McKintosh 's design is as powerful as the story, with characters from the past garbed as we'd know them, while the figures within the tale proper wear bright colours that indicate their roles. The handmaids are in red with a white Flying Nun headdress, the wives of black-garbed commanders in sky blue, the authoritarian instructor "aunts" in bright green.
It's hard to sort out individuals within any one group, but that's one of the points in this non-individualistic, non-feeling society based on ritual speech and gesture. Put several groups against a clinical white-tiled backdrop and you've got some striking visuals.
Richard Bradshaw conducts with monumental sweep, yet lets the quiet emotional moments have their place, while the cast is expert at helping make the difficult score - melodic without being actually tuneful - easy to listen to. Surprisingly, given the denseness of the orchestration, they also deliver the words so clearly that you don't need the surtitles.
Happily, the cast is a company of singing actors, with the splendid Stephanie Marshall a totally believable and engrossing Offred; Krisztina Szabó as her earlier, unnamed self; Victor Micallef as that earlier woman's loving partner; Kurt Link as the seemingly caring commander who's really out for his own pleasure; Helen Todd as the fanatical, puritanical Aunt Lydia , with a stratospheric vocal line; and Frédérique Vézina as a handmaid with a different agenda.
I have a few quibbles: nude pictures aren't shocking these days, and some scenes go on unnecessarily after a point's been made. But the opera captures the original story in a generally compact, tight fashion, and its music and visuals give further life to a chilling tale.
Who says contemporary opera doesn't work?