Since Paul Ruders’s opera based on Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale was premiered in Denmark in 2000, and three years later at English National Opera, times have changed and what once may have been dismissed as a dystopian caricature strikes an alarming note today. Explosive events of the last few years include a rejected US president’s attempt to violently subvert the American presidential election and a British prime minister’s bid to close down Parliament. The Taliban has banned women from education and sexual violence against women has become a known weapon of war.
Annilese Miskimmon, in her first production as Artistic Director of English National Opera, initially frames the action of the opera as a future symposium given by the International Historical Association on the violent rise and fall of the Republic of Gilead. Through the crackling tones of a rediscovered tape we hear the voice of a handmaid of Gilead. This slides us into the time of Offred, who was robbed of husband and child, and forced to adopt the red frock and white bonnet of a handmaid in order to accommodate the patriarchal whims of a totalitarian state. These include institutionalised rape – the handmaid’s main duty is to boost the falling birthrate by acting as surrogate where a wife is barren. The impregnation is conducted in a grotesque ritual, with the wife lying under the handmaid as symbolic recipient.
The production is graced with an excellent cast, led by American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as a driven Offred (handmaids are labelled as possessions of the husband). Her life before she is seized from her husband and child is conveyed by use of video in Annemarie Woods’s pleasingly spare design. There’s fine work from Susan Bickley as Offred’s old hippie mother, and Emma Bell as a piercing-voiced Aunt Lydia (Aunts being official guards and tormenters of the Handmaids). Robert Hayward as the Commander, Fred, captures the emptiness of a man who is in his own way trapped by the monstrous state he has helped to create. Contralto Avery Amereau brings a voice of sumptuous richness to the blonde bitch wife Serena Joy.
The score, influenced by minimalism, medieval chanting and gospel, is sustainedly high on decibels, at times when one might feel a more reflective mood is needed, but Ruders believes in keeping his audience on the edge of their seats, and Joana Carneiro conducts the orchestra of the English National Opera at vigorous pace. The whole production, incidentally using an all-female creative team, is designed to disturb and this it does superbly. Paul Bentley’s libretto follows Atwood’s novel closely, and very little has been softened beyond what is possible or not on stage. Worth catching the final performances; it’s a pity that an earlier Covid interruption to rehearsals cut back its run. Till 14 April
Conductor Joana Carneiro
Director Annilese Miskimmon
Designer Annemarie Woods
Lighting designer Paule Constable
Video designer Akhila Krishnan
Sound designer Yvonne Gilbert
Movement director Imogen Knight
Production Photography: Catherine Ashmore