There is power in symbols, and a great deal of power in the red dresses and white bonnets of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The television adaptation, streaming on Hulu, has won 11 Emmys. Women around the world have donned Handmaid garb to protest legislation that restricts reproductive freedom; the headgear obscures the face, anonymizing the wearer and creating a poignant sense of unity.
Now, with an ambitious, immersive staging by Anne Bogart and a fantastic cast and chorus, Boston Lyric Opera’s production of composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has landed close to home.
The story takes place in the theocratic dictatorship of Gilead, formerly the United States of America (specifically, Harvard Square), where fertile women are forced to bear children as Handmaids for the upper class. The first sentence of the novel explains that the “Red Center,” where Handmaids are indoctrinated, was a school gym. Mounted appropriately in Harvard University’s Lavietes Pavilion, this production puts stage and orchestra at floor level, surrounded on three sides by bleachers from which we, the audience, observe as we might a mass wedding or public execution, were we in Gilead.
Through much of the opera, what we are observing — and marveling at — is the tour de force performance of mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano in the central part of Offred, seemingly a role she was born to inhabit. Offred is onstage for almost all of the opera’s roughly 150 minutes, singing for much of that time. When Offred laments her lost child with a memory of her past self (mezzo Felicia Gavilanes), the duo’s voices grasp in keen desperation, trading syllables seamlessly. In interactions with her oppressors, Offred’s vocal range is confined, and Cano adds poignant weight to each note when engaging with them. When the character is alone and free to escape into memory, the singer soars into a luminous, complex high range, letting her voice stretch toward freedom. This is her tale to tell, and she tells the hell out of it.
But it is also of course Atwood’s tale, and here to a remarkable degree. The opera hews closest to Atwood’s novel out of any of the adaptations I’ve seen — the Hulu series and the strange 1990 film adaptation being the others — and I’d argue that faithfulness to the source is enabled by the operatic medium.
The book’s public scenes offer striking, often shocking material, but Offred also spends a sizable portion of the story alone with only her thoughts and ghosts for company. On screen, that’s awkward; in an opera, that’s an aria.
Here shifts between Offred’s real-time interactions, narration, and flashbacks feel natural, needing only a change in lighting or the appearance of a character who shouldn’t logically be there.
The new edition of the opera commissioned by BLO omits Atwood’s framing device, which places Offred’s story as the subject of an academic conference in the year 2195, but this isn’t a loss; Offred now has the last words, as she should.
The world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” here feels alarmingly close. A sense of the audience’s direct involvement pervaded Sunday’s matinee, as light flooded in through the glass ceiling, eliminating the remove of a dimmed house. When the chorus of Handmaids participates in mass ceremonies on the gray stage, choreographed by movement director Shura Baryshnikov, their red dresses pop like flowers of blood. Acoustics-wise, the production fights an uphill battle in this space, but even through the sonic hiccups, little dramatic effect is lost.
Among the other cast members, the stentorian mezzo Dana Beth Miller makes the most of dated material as Offred’s first-wave feminist mother, while soprano Michelle Trainor is no-nonsense as the covertly rebellious Ofglen. Bass-baritone David Cushing, as Offred’s captor, the Commander, sings with the disturbing lightness of a man who knows the woman next to him literally can’t say no. And the Handmaid headmistress Aunt Lydia is played with terrifying, almost campy zeal by Caroline Worra, who condemns the iniquities of the world in coloratura flights that are even more impressive for her unleashing them while storming around the stage.
BLO music director David Angus steers the large orchestra adeptly through this dark tale, elevating the drama and capturing its many moods. Among them, in Ruders’s evocative score, are some stunning ensemble passages, most hauntingly a slew of sinister scriptural chants for the Handmaids and the creepiest version of “Amazing Grace” you may ever hear.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Ray and Estelle Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard University. Repeats May 8, 10 and 12. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.