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Handmaid's Tale.

When England's Elaine Padmore became the first foreigner appointed artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera in 1993, one of her first acts was to invite Poul Ruders to compose the first full-scale work commissioned by the venerable theatre since 1968. The Danish composer's one condition? That he be allowed to set Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's prize-winning futuristic novel, A Handmaid's Tale, with its grim portrait of a totalitarian U.S.A. taken over by Christian fundamentalists, in which women have been reduced to the status of illiterate breeders.

No easy task, given the way Atwood told so much of her story as an inner monologue, moving backward and forward in time. But in fashioning a libretto for Ruders, Paul Bentley cleverly called upon two sopranos to represent the title character, one portraying her before the fundamentalist revolution, one after, and both sometimes appearing, even singing together.

As a sometime organist, Ruders often uses pedal points in the score, supporting rather than competing with the vocal line, and as an unabashed eclectic, he uses as well a wide range of complementary materials, from New Age minimalism to underline the hollowness of the theocratic society to quotations from the old hymn "Amazing Grace" to introduce a note of spiritual irony. If it is not a score, despite Michael Schonwandt's masterful conducting, that one would necessarily care to encounter independently of a staged production, the music supports Atwood's tale admirably, as does Phyllida Lloyd's production, with its ample use of projections and atmospheric lighting.

Though sung in Danish by a strong cast, headed by Marianne Rorholm and Hanne Fischer as the later and earlier Offred, respectively, Anne Margarethe Dahl as Aunt Lydia and Susanne Resmark as Serena Joy, the libretto was written originally in English, anticipating the possibility of international productions. They may well come. So enthusiastically did word of mouth spread about the opera's power and accessibility after its March 6 premiere that subsequent performances quickly sold out, and the Royal Danish Opera announced the return of The Handmaid's Tale to the repertory next season.
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Author:Littler, William
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Words:344
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