In the 1930s W. H. Auden wrote, 'The best reason I have for opposing fascism is that at school I lived in a fascist state.' Auden's prose and poetry in this period - and indeed that of Christopher Isherwood and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Spender - nevertheless invoke the cosy public-schoolboy world, with its 'feuds, its practical jokes, its dark threats conveyed in puns and riddles and understatements' (Isherwood's description), as a metaphor for wider mythological landscapes. Auden never resolved this contradiction between anxiety at the very real threat of fascism (which he fought against with his pen and as a medical orderly) and nostalgia for the defined order of his schooling, but the tension between the two does hint at an aesthetic symmetry of totalitarianism, a melding of architecture and institutional order with which Auden played in his writing and to which, in their grand plans and public monuments, the dictators and designers of fascism and National Socialism aspired in the 1930s and beyond.
The vogue for self-conscious symmetry on the opera stage has long passed; in any case it was used for any number of reasons, not always to do with invoking insidious social conformity or order, regardless of how much it owed aesthetically to the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. But its use in English National Opera's production of Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale (1997-8) is a shattering, draining reminder of the potency of such symbolism in an operatic context. Buildings, prayers, clothing, childbirth, shopping, travelling and sex all occur with near-perfect institutional symmetry. There is even a classroom where handmaids are instructed in their eugenic role within this religious fundamentalist state ('Where we are is not a prison but a privilege'). Paul Bentley's libretto, much like Auden's poetry, quotes and parodies liturgical texts throughout ('Blessed are the meek for theirs is the Republic of Gilead' - formerly the United States of America), which identifies the fundamentalism in question as Christian rather than cultish, and brings with it a whole new bag of ceremonial etiquette. The original handmaid, after all, was barren Rachel's maid Bilhah, who bore both Jacob's son and a proto-Christian imprimatur. Thus the Ten Commandments in Gilead start plainly, and recognizably - 'Thou shalt not steal' - but soon display all too clearly a new fundamentalist social agenda: 'Thou shalt not commit abortion. Thou shalt not read or write.'
Margaret Atwood's novel, on which the opera is based, was written in the early 1980s, from the perspective and distance of a Canadian observer to whom American Christian fundamentalism appeared to be more than just a kooky by-product of a Christian democracy; rather, it seemed to have well-documented, powerful and plainly destructive links with the media and Ronald Reagan's government. This, as Atwood comments, was pre-Taliban - a regime whose attitudes to women only serve to make the sexual politics at the heart of the novel more relevant and to emphasize the disdain for pluralism and freedom of speech implicit in the institutional censure it received. On its publication in 1985 the reaction to the book in England, according to Atwood, was '"Jolly good tale". They had already done their religious theocracy, they had had that under Oliver Cromwell.' In the United States, though, the response was markedly different: 'How long have we got?' Not long, thought Ruders as he worked on the opera in the late 1990s, determined to transplant Atwood's dystopic voice into music. Did he succeed? And more to the point, is opera as a genre up to the task of polemical social commentary?
The easy answer first. Ruders did succeed - although it would be hard to tell this from reading the English press and broadcast media, which considered the opera overblown in musical language and ponderous in dramatic shape. Alas, opprobrium in this instance should really have been directed at the messenger, not the message. Ruders' scores are multi-layered, complex, detailed; he takes enormous care over notation and instrumental colour. Yet on the whole this was a monochrome performance, conducted in broad sweeps rather than dainty brushwork, robbing the opera of its sense of harmonic and formal structure. As a result, the story was harping rather than gripping - a dialogue of the catamites. Even brilliant performances by Stephanie Marshall, Andrew Rees and the orchestra and chorus of the ENO couldn't offset this.
As to whether opera works as social commentary or discourse, there are enough 20th-century examples to suggest that it once did so (ignoring, from previous eras, the brilliant satires of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the late, humble Giuseppe Verdi masterpieces), and so surely still can. Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Alban Berg - three composers admired by Ruders - all created devastating operatic dystopias, internal worlds destroyed and projected, cankerous, dysfunctional societies given dramatic flesh (and music). As Elektra dances herself into ecstasy, madness and death at the end of Strauss' opera of the same name, any sense of relief at the violent, enforced end of a corrupt dictatorship is tinged with a sense that this is a pyrrhic victory. To see Ruders' opera in London only days after the enforced end of a corrupt dictatorship in Baghdad reinforced just how universal and depressingly timeless many of these operatic dystopias are. His piece is firmly in this tradition, its central character, Offred, an inversion, but still a sister, of Lulu, Berg's greatest operatic creation. The work's aping of religious iconography, its ready invoking of famous Robert Capa photographs from the Spanish Civil War (fresh corpses daily, hanging from trees in the streets, twisting in the breeze), its musical flashbacks to safer times - Bach's 'Bist du bei mir' (Be Thou with Me, 1725), hollow in the circumstances, and 'Amazing Grace' (c. 1770), quoted with Shaker-like sincerity and simplicity - all combine to give the piece historical verisimilitude and, worse, inevitability.
As Sergei Eisenstein invented a new history of the new Soviet Union through film in the 1920s, so Ruders is here doing something analogous through opera. And throughout this piece, both musically and scenically, the power, threat and symmetry of institutions grind away at our own memories and fears. As in Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters (2002), the visual quotations - religious and institutional - are clever, oppressive and sinister. All this opera needs now is for its musical language and references to be realized with equal skill.
Paul Kildea is a conductor and writer and former artistic director of Wigmore Hall, London, UK. His most recent book, Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism (2018), is published by Penguin/Allen Lane.
First published in Issue 76