WORKS: The Handmaid’s Tale
PERFORMER: Marianne Rørholm, Hanne Fischer, Anne Margrethe Dahl, Susanne Resmark, Poul Elming, Aage Haugland; Royal Danish Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
CATALOGUE NO: 8.224165-66
The broad church of contemporary music has room for new operas of extreme variability, yet even though the composers of these four theatre works, all premiered in the last six years, are very different stylistically, in one important sense they share a relatively conservative approach to the form. All, either in a direct or in a more circuitous way, tell a story, and so implicitly reject the non-linear approach to operatic form explored over the last two decades by composers like Berio, Birtwistle and Rihm.
That says nothing about their effectiveness on stage, of course, and in fact only one of this quartet seems to me a real disaster. Joseph Merrick dit Elephant Man, by Laurent Petitgirard, a new name as far as I’m concerned (and the booklet notes provide no biography), is the kind of opera that need never have been written. Its flat, uninspired libretto recycles the true story familiar from the movie starring John Hurt, to which Petitgirard adds a vacuous score, though the presence of the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann in the title role might add an element of curiosity to the whole benighted project for her admirers.
The other French offering here is much more convincing: Philippe Manoury’s 60th Parallel, about a group of passengers stranded in an airport on the 60th parallel by a storm, is a tightly woven piece with a bleak denouement and a score that melds electronic sounds and the live orchestra in his characteristically adept way. The main musical interest lies in these layered sonorities, for much of the text is declaimed rather than sung, and the effect is of a series of dislocated confrontations, played out against the background of the raging storm outside, which in many ways is the main protagonist of the work.
Both Louis Andriessen’s Rosa and Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale, though, are important achievements and works that could well fix themselves in the operatic repertoire. Rosa was Andriessen’s first collaboration with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway (who also wrote the libretto), and if at the premiere in Amsterdam in 1995, the sheer brilliance of his staging rather overshadowed the score, the CDs reveal what a beautifully crafted work it is, with Andriessen’s characteristically sharp-edged motoric writing overlaid with moments of pastiche and delicate lyrical beauty, and responding keenly to the typically allusive, teasing and sometimes gruesome twists of Greenaway’s scenario. It is a superb studio performance, too, while the recording of The Handmaid’s Tale is taken from the premiere in Copenhagen in March last year. Here, Paul Bentley’s libretto is a very careful filleting of Margaret Atwood’s novel and the timeshifts of this futuristic, feminist story are neatly preserved. Ruders’s score, by turns sombre, intense and blamelessly diatonic, is highly wrought; too much so in some passages, in which one longs for more light and shade, but the whole work has an integrity and a real operatic purpose that are impressive.