Boston Lyric Opera Scores with 'The Handmaid's Tale' (in Basketball Arena)

by Ed Tapper
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday May 15, 2019
Caroline Worra and members of the ensemble in "The Handmaid's Tale."
Caroline Worra and members of the ensemble in "The Handmaid's Tale."  (Source:Liza Voll/BLO)

For the past few seasons, the nomadic Boston Lyric Opera has mounted its productions in a variety of venues throughout the Boston area. For contemporary, Danish composer Poul Ruders' brooding "The Handmaid's Tale," the powers that be selected the Lavietes Pavilion at Harvard University. And, as was appropriate in a basketball arena, they scored!

Based on Margaret Atwood's visionary 1985 novel, the story concerns a futuristic society in which women are denied human rights, and exploited for their procreative abilities. Ruders' atmospheric score succeeds in retaining the nightmarish mood of the book. The opera is structured in several brief vignettes, which, when strung together, make for a nearly three-hour running time. As the libretto is frequently repetitive, the opera proves prolix, and could easily have been edited to an overall, tighter structure. (Note: performances marked the first time a new edition of Ruders' score, commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, was performed.)

Musically, the score is tonal but highly dissonant. There are sonorities reminiscent of composers such as Janacek, Messiaen, and Poulenc, as well as quotations from Bach, and American hymns. However, Ruders managed to retain an original sound and orchestrated brilliantly for a massive body of instruments, including an extensive percussion battery. As the story revolves around the plight of women, most of the music is scored for female voices, although there are a few smaller parts for tenors, and a key role, that of the Commander, written for a bass.


Jennifer Johnson Cano and David Cushing in "The Handmaid's Tale"  (Source:Liza Voll/BLO)

BLO claims to have chosen the arena to specifically suit the tone of the opera, and the idea succeeded. The vast space, with the spare, metallic sets of James Schuette, suggested a cold, futuristic society. The imaginative direction of Anne Bogart made use of the entire stadium, and Shura Baryshnikov ingeniously choreographed the movements of the many characters and large chorus, carefully following cues in the libretto.

The entire cast sang the work with intense commitment, and, from a vocal standpoint, there was scarcely a weak link. Talented mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano returned to the BLO to create the leading role of Offred. It is a taxing part, from both a musical and dramatic viewpoint. Cano excelled, making a sympathetic heroine, and negotiating all of Ruders' complex vocal writing. BLO regular David Cushing appeared as the Commander, and his rich, basso was in fine form. Sopranos Caroline Worra and Chelsea Basler have always been a delight to hear in past BLO productions, as they were in "The Handmaid's Tale," singing the roles of Aunt Lydia and Moira. David Angus deserves special praise for tackling a highly challenging score and conducting it with vigor and accuracy.

BLO will reconvene in September, opening its season with an operatic chestnut, "I Pagliacci." The promising roster will also include two towering masterpieces, Bellini's "Norma," and Handel's "Giulio Cesare." In November, the company perpetuates its commitment to contemporary opera, producing "Fellow Travelers," a new work by Gregory Spears, based on the novel by Thomas Mallon. The story concerns two, gay, US government officials who enter into a relationship amid the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

For information about Boston Lyric Opera's upcoming season, visit the company's website.


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