BLO's "The Handmaid's Tale": I Tell, Therefore You Are

One Inspiration for "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Boston Lyric Opera)

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” So begins the nightmarish tale that is the source for the opera The Handmaid's Tale, Boston Lyric Opera's current production being performed in Harvard's Lavietes Pavillion, a former basketball arena (historic Briggs Cage). Based on the phenomenally popular 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, set in and around Cambridge (especially Harvard), it serves as a reaction to the ascent of the Christian right movement which inexorably led to a modern dystopia. With Music by Poul Ruders and Libretto by Paul Bentley, the opera had its world premiere in 2000 at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, followed by a production by the English National Opera in its English language premiere. Harold Pinter had adapted the novel for a film version and it was the basis for a 2013 story ballet by Lili York for the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, as well as a wildly popular television series. In this new operatic edition, commissioned by the BLO, in its Boston area premiere, the opera, sung in English with English surtitles, boasts thirty-eight scenes in a prologue and two acts, clocking in at just under three hours, utilizing an orchestra of sixty five and a chorus of thirty-four.

Jennifer Johnson Cano in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The setting for the story is Gilead, a theocratic republic in the near future, founded on seventeenth century Puritan principles. There are leading roles for twelve women and five men, attesting to the fact that even in a patriarchal society, women are primary villains, even though they are forbidden to read or write, hold jobs or own property. Not coincidentally, the plot echoes the very real Salem witch trials; Mary Webster of Hadley, said to be an ancestor of Atwood, was tried and (unsuccessfully) hanged. In this production, colored habits signify roles: upper class Wives in light blue (for purity), lower class Econowives in drab colors, authoritarian Aunts (basically chaperones) in khaki, and finally Handmaids or sexual surrogates in red with face-hiding bonnets (suggested by Atwood based on her childhood fear of the figure on Old Dutch Cleanser cans). Atwood's vision had the Secret Service based in what had been the Widener Library, which lends an eerie substrate to the current production. The opera adds the role of a double, Offred's younger self, in flashbacks, in what amounts to a story fairly faithful to the original. Chillingly, it begins with a prelude of anti-Beatitudes such as “Blessed are the silent”. The Handmaids' enforced silence causes them to “learn to whisper almost without a sound”.

Caroline Worra in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The narrator, Offred (mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano) is the surrogate sexual slave of the Commander Fred (baritone David Cushing), hence the diminutive name of “Of-Fred”. She is charged with successful reproduction or else being sent to the nuclear waste dumps. Her handmaid friends include Moira (soprano Chelsea Basler), Ofglen (soprano Michelle Trainor) and the unbalanced Janine who becomes Ofwarren (soprano Kathryn Skemp Moran). Their Aunt is Lydia (soprano Caroline Worra), the Scarpia-like threat. Serena Joy (mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak) is the legal wife of Fred. Also in the Commander's residence are the “Martha” (an all purpose maid and nanny with low status related to her infertility) Rita (alto Lynn Torgove) and the servant Nick (tenor Omar Najmi). Offred has a monthly check-up with a doctor (tenor Matthew DiBattista). She begins a relationship with Fred by, of all things, playing Scrabble with him, which of course is strictly forbidden. The second act features memories of the “time before”, and a visit to Jezebel's, a private club. The Handmaids also gather inside the wall of the Salvaging Center where they punish an accused man. Offred discovers a hidden inscription carved by her unknown predecessor on the wall of her room: nolite te bastardes carborandorum (“don't let the bastards wear you down”). Serena and Rita confront Offred and the Commander with their indiscretions as a police siren is heard. Nick bursts in and Offred is swiftly swept away, to an unknown fate, as in The Lady or the Tiger.

Chelsea Basler & Jennifer Johnson Cano in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The music is fascinating and intricate on first hearing and the libretto is taut and precise, with excellent performances from the entire cast, notably the two antagonists Cano and Worra. The Direction by Anne Bogart (a frequent presence in the theatrical history of Cambridge) employs the style of acting known as Viewpoints, a technique involving integrated movement, gestures and creative space, thus with significant dependence here on the fluid Movement Direction by Shura Baryshnikov. As Conducted by David Angus, the orchestra was in rare form, as were the creative elements, with Scenic and Costume Design by James Schuette, Lighting Design by Brian Scott (which succeeded even with afternoon light reaching the stage through the arena's glass ceiling), Sound Design by J. Jumbelic (superb considering the customary acoustics in an athletic venue), and Video Design by Adam J. Thompson. With such glorious singing from all the soloists and choruses, a score to thrill for, and acting to, well, die for, this is unquestionably the finest, most creative and unforgettable production in BLO's storied history. Full stop.

Jennifer Johnson Cano & David Cushing in "The Handmaid's Tale"
(photo: Liza Voll)

This “memory play”, as Bogart calls it, is summed up by repetitive words (“what I feel is emptiness”) and music (as in three drastically different versions of Amazing Grace). Offred expresses her sorrow that her story is so fragmented and painful. “I tell therefore you are” is Awood's clever upending of the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, where performer and audience need one another to exist as such. And the concept of “it can never happen here” reminds us what we must face when we leave the theater to revisit our own dystopian republic. There may be no balm in our Gilead.

Do keep resisting, but don't resist this wondrous milestone, here with us until May 12th.

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