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Opera: The Handmaid’s Tale by Poul Ruder (ENO)

13 April 2022

Fiona Hook reviews the operatic version of The Handmaid’s Tale

© catherine ashmore

The Handmaid’s Tale, the ensemble in a production photo

The Handmaid’s Tale, the ensemble in a production photo

THE Danish composer Poul Ruder’s 1998 operatic version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is not a cheery night out. All the more credit, then, to English National Opera’s new artistic director, Annilese Miskimmon, for choosing this as her directorial debut.

For those not familiar with the story, Atwood’s grim tale deals with an episode of American history in which the United States has become the theocratic Republic of Gilead. Pollution and nuclear war mean that people are not reproducing, and women of proven fertility who have lived in sin (cohabited, or married a divorced man) are given to high-status officials, to be impregnated and produce babies.

Offred’s — they are named after their owners — husband and daughter were snatched away. She is on her second placement with the Commander and his wife, the former television evangelist Serena Joy. If she fails to produce a baby after three placements — sterility is never the male’s fault — she will be sent to the colonies to clean up radiation spills. Despite this, she finds courage within to maintain her identity and even to rebel.

Ruders and his librettist, Paul Bentley, have succeeded magnificently in transferring a book, much of whose action is in memories and internal monologue, to the stage. Flashbacks to Offred’s Life Before with her mother, husband, and daughter are back-projected black-and-white film. Act One ends with a birth — to the Handmaid Ofwarren, a moment of communal rejoicing — Act Two with a death, the whole framed by an academic symposium in which a historian in 2065 — Call My Agent!’s Camille Cottin — plays us Offred’s clandestine tapes, making it clear from the start that Gilead, like Nazi Germany, is a historical aberration.

Hopelessness runs through the story like a muddy stream. We open with a chorus of red-robed Handmaidens, faceless under their winged bonnets, their spirits broken by their indoctrination. Later, in a nod to the Bacchae, they will tear apart an alleged rapist. Annemarie Woods’s settings, a plain backdrop of faded hospital curtains in green, grey, and pink, emphasise the dreary colourlessness of the Handmaids’ lives.

Ruder’s music, ably conducted by Joana Carneiro, is not pretty, either. Largely without arias, and swinging between lyrical tonality and atonality, with sustained towering chords, hints of Schoenberg and film music, brass, percussion, and bells, its rhythms serve to underpin the text, like the music in Greek tragedy. The occasional snatch of “Amazing Grace” and a Bach cantata underlines just how far Gilead has strayed from the gospel message. There is no sweet singing: it’s not a sweet opera. The female characters sing at the tops of their ranges, and mostly the surtitles are very necessary.

This, ironically, was women’s night. Besides author, producer, and conductor, there is Imogen Knight’s movement direction and Paule Constable’s lighting. The mezzo Kate Lindsey’s Offred is brilliant, her recitatives engaging the audience directly, her Before and Now voices subtly different, as she refuses to be crushed by the system. Her little daughter, remembered, passes on and off the stage.

Emma Bell’s Aunt Lydia radiates sadistic joy, as she disciplines the Handmaids for their own good. Avery Amereau’s Serena Joy effectively conveys desiccated longing, boredom, and thwarted hope. Minor characters shine as well, especially Susan Bickley as Offred’s mother. Ofwarren (Rhian Lois) is deeply affecting as she loses her baby, then her mind. The men are good, but secondary. Robert Hayward’s rich bass baritone brought out both the Commander’s hypocrisy and a certain vulnerability, a foil to Frederick Ballentine’s attractive chauffeur.

You wouldn’t go to this for an evening of happy escapism, but it is an experience that I am glad that I didn’t miss.

At the London Coliseum until 14 April. Phone 020 7845 9300. eno.org

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