Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley’s operatic transformation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has now received a second production in one of the theatres where it was first heard, a rare distinction for a work under 25 years old (sadly a planned return to Copenhagen in 2020, twenty years on from its world premiere there, was thwarted by Covid). English National Opera gave the English-language premiere in 2003 and it returns to the Coliseum in the directorial hands of the company’s current artistic supremo, Annilese Miskimmon

The Handmaid's Tale
© Catherine Ashmore

In the intervening years, the novel has of course become much more widely known, as both A-level set text and with its recent and on-going TV serialisation, but its subject-matter has become if anything even more topical and prescient. Atwood wrote her dystopian view of a USA taken over by a fundamentalist religious cult in the wake of the Iranian revolution, the opera’s creation coincided with the rise of the Taliban and now here we are two decades further on with the latter back again and with the religious Right in America in the ascendant and enacting anti-abortion -gay and -trans laws in state legislatures.

Pumeza Matshikiza (Moira), Rhian Lois (Ofwarren) and Kate Lindsey (Offred)
© Catherine Ashmore

The opera makes for a tough, harrowing evening in the theatre. Despite a few moments of levity in the interactions between the characters it does make works such as Wozzeck or Dialogues des Carmélites seem almost cheerful by comparison. But it is also compelling, as both drama and music. Ruders’s rather wide-ranging musical style, encompassing everything from dissonant clusters to gospel, is highly effective in conveying both the inhumanity and humanity on display.

Kate Lindsey (Offred)
© Catherine Ashmore

His use of more consonant, tonal music provides an ironic level that gives new meaning to the text, for example with the sonorous perfect cadences that punctuate the psalmody of the handmaids’ induction classes, or the earworm of Amazing Grace that always crops up at seemingly the most inappropriate moments. The only structural aspect that didn’t work for me was the return to the framing conference narration after the music’s transfiguring close, despite the starry presence of French actress Camille Cottin as Professor Pieixoto.

Camille Cottin (Professor Pieixoto)
© Catherine Ashmore

In terms of performance, it would be hard to imagine the opera better sung. American mezzo Kate Lindsey – making her ENO debut – gives a career-defining performance as Offred: her musical and dramatic focus as the handmaid of the title is total (she’s rarely off stage, and a role previously shared between two singers as her past and present personae has been combined into one in the composer’s revision). 

Kate Lindsey (Offred) and Avery Amereau (Serena Joy)
© Catherine Ashmore

Of the supporting cast, particularly noteworthy are Avery Amereau’s rich contralto Serena Joy, Pumeza Matshikiza’s resilient Moira, Robert Hayward’s solid Commander and Frederick Ballentine’s sympathetic Nick. Emma Bell, ENO’s recent Sieglinde, is almost vocally unrecognisable as the controlling Aunt Lydia, with what Stephen Johnson describes in a programme interview with the composer as her character’s “demented coloratura”. Conductor Joana Carneiro holds everything together magnificently, with the ENO Chorus and Orchestra on excellent form.

Robert Hayward (The Commander) and Kate Lindsey (Offred)
© Catherine Ashmore

Miskimmon’s staging, with designs by Annemarie Woods that rely on what is becoming a frugal ENO trope of curtains as the set, is both penetrating and effective in its juggling of time and space – the opera interweaves past and present with abandon – and in conveying the painful narrative of Offred’s tale with force and sympathy. Ever-present, gun-toting ‘Eyes’ provide the menace, and black and white video footage projected on to a mid-stage curtain keeps the looking back to the ‘Before Times’ within sentimental bounds while still giving heart-rending context for Offred’s memories of her snatched-away daughter. The ending is suitably enigmatic, as Offred disappears into the dry ice surrounding the Wall, here appearing more as a symbolic martyrs’ memorial than a place of execution. The operatic world, unlike TV executives (and maybe Wagner), has little appetite for endless sequels.