Wednesday, April 09, 2003


Poul Ruders’ opera The Handmaid’s Tale, previewed on NFE and currently in performance at London’s ENO, has received disappointing reviews. Fairly typical is Andrew Clements in The Guardian on Saturday. He begins:

“With a born-again president in the White House, 'The Handmaid's Tale', Margaret Atwood's dystopian fable of a near-future US transformed into the republic of Gilead and run by religious zealots who are against abortion and in favour of capital punishment seems less far-fetched now than it did when it appeared in 1985.… It is easy to see why Ruders was so determined to make an opera out of the tale…”

But, unfortunately, he goes on to say of the work itself: “Ruders' score lacks a distinctive flavour, veering between idioms and underpinning characterless vocal lines with overloaded and overheated orchestral writing that resorts too often to quotation (‘Amazing Grace’, and Bach's ‘Bist du bei mir' are heavily exploited). The choral writing is sometimes uncomfortably close to 'Carmina Burana', the Bernstein-esque treatment of Offred's family life is trite, while her duet with her later self is sentimental indulgence. The high tessitura of many of the female vocal lines make much of the text indecipherable…”

I didn’t agree with much of the criticism of Nicholas Maw’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’, and am intrigued to find out how I will respond to Ruders’ work. In the past he has produced worthwhile scores that combine tradition and innovation interestingly. With both these new operas, however, it seems that there is a case for arguing that important and controversial subjects are in danger of overawing the musical material and pressing it into surprisingly derivative or hesitant corners.

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