You might imagine that the ENO’s opening production of the season, The Handmaid’s Tale, is new, riding the wave of popularity of Margaret Attwood’s book since the success of the television series. You would, though, be wrong. Danish composer, Paul Ruder’s opera was first seen in 2000 – way before Elizabeth Moss first scorched our screens scarlet – and the ENO’s own first version appeared in 2003.
The current incarnation is a revival of their production from 2022. I missed it both times around and so was eager to see it this time. Indeed, I was eager to see anything from the ENO’s new season, given the first night was threatened by strikes – a result of the Arts Council’s disastrous policies when it comes to funding one of our finest opera companies.
Thankfully, though, it did open, a revival of Annilese Miskimmon’s striking production of two years ago. The scarlet uniforms of the handmaids are an arresting sight but then on this stage everyone is in uniform. There are the masked jackbooted “guardians”, the grey-clad warders who train the handmaids, the 1950’s style sky blue dresses of the wives of those at the top of the regime who, unable to bear children themselves, require the handmaids to do it for them.
For those few who needed to be brought up to speed on what was happening, Juliet Stevenson, no less, was on hand. From 2195, she looks back to the very early days of Gilead (previously known as the USA) through the quaintly curious technology of a series of cassette tapes made by Offred, one of the first handmaids. We are told how, after a series of natural disasters and political assassinations, the state of Gilead emerged, based on Old Testament values. Rights disappeared, capital punishment became a group sport (as when the handmaids kill a rapist) and rape was normalised as a way of producing children for the master class.
The story is as chilling – perhaps more chilling – today as it was when Atwood wrote it. As the story is told through the central character of Offred, she is central to just about every scene and the role is massively demanding. The ENO is fortunate indeed to have the American mezzo Kate Lindsey return in the role, who not only sings magnificently but manages, too, to draw together the disparate parts of the story and (almost) make them coherent. Because there are some challenges here. Most of the other characters are seriously underwritten, albeit beautifully sung. This is most certainly true of the Commander (James Creswell) and Susan Bickley as Offred’s mother seen in a flickering black and white home movie from the Time Before Gilead.
Paul Ruders has produced a compellingly driven score, with a few ironic moments (mostly using variously distorted versions of Amazing Grace). There are a few moments, too, of vocal beauty (mostly for Lindsey) but Rachel Nicholls as Aunt Lydia has some truly awful top notes to hit as well as a caricature of a part to deal with. As Serena Joy, wife of the Commander, Avery Amereau has rather more to get her teeth into, moving between monstrous manipulator and a woman who has lost all hope. Rhian Lois as Janine/Ofwarren and Eleanor Dennis as Ofglen add some much-needed brightness to the unrelenting gloom of the story.
Under Joanna Carneiro, the ENO Orchestra (and indeed the chorus) are as excellent as ever though, musically, I’m still not sure how many more revivals this one deserves.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues at the London Coliseum on 8th, 10th and 15th February 2024. For more information, including showtimes, and for bookings, please visit www.eno.org.
Photos by Zoe Martin