Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has come to the attention of a whole new generation due to Hulu’s wildly popular TV adaptation (2017). The opera, by Danish composer Poul Ruders and British librettist Paul Bentley, predates that series, having premiered in 2000. But this new production from Annilese Miskimmon owes much of its aesthetic to the show.
The story of the opera sticks closely to the source material. A series of ecological and political disasters has led to the creation of the Republic of Gilead in what was once the United States of America. This ultra-Christian right-wing theocracy has stripped women of all their rights.
Female fertility has plummeted and so fertile women – the handmaids – are forced to reproduce with men whose property they become. The tale is told by one of these handmaids, Offred (Of Fred, her commander). Unlike both the novel and TV show we never learn Offred’s real name.
We start in the Red Centre, run by the Aunts, where the handmaids are indoctrinated into their new lives of sexual servitude. Here Offred meets Moira and Jannine. The former, Offred’s best friend, escapes, while the latter has a breakdown. Then the action moves to the home of Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy.
Offred meets Nick, who might be a spy or might genuinely care for Offred, and Serena Joy bribes the handmaid to sleep with him when the Commander fails to get her pregnant. Waterford himself also instigates illegal contact with his handmaid, at one point taking her to a brothel where we find out that Moira was recaptured and offered the choice of working there or going to certain death at the Colonies. Offred also encounters Janine again, who has fallen pregnant only for her baby to be declared an ‘un-baby’ and destroyed; she has another breakdown.
The history of how Gilead came to be is told in flashback, projected onto a curtain, with the singing pre-recorded. This allows for one of the emotional and musical highlights of the opera as Offred duets with her past self. We also see how she is separated from her partner Luke and their daughter – a scene played out several times during the production, adding to its emotional impact.
The story is unrelentingly bleak, but there are moments of humour at which the audience all laugh, breaking the tension somewhat. A prologue and epilogue set in 2195 at a historical conference about the Republic of Gilead frame the action while also providing distance from it; it provides some relief that Gilead failed.
These sections are led by French actor Camille Cottin in the non-singing role of Professor Pieixoto. Star of TV series Call My Agent! and Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, this marks Cottin’s West End debut.
Only three of the men have speaking – or singing – roles: Luke, Nick and the Commander. The others remain silent, and even those three say very little. This doesn’t detract from their power – the other men are Guardians, after all, and are all armed. It does, however, centre the experiences of the women.
The singing is excellent. American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey’s voice is restrained and emotive as heroine Offred – fitting for a woman in her position. It contrasts well with Emma Bell’s at times glass-shatteringly high soprano as Aunt Lydia. She comes across as a zealous true-believer.
American contralto Avery Amereau – singing the role of Serena Joy – is extraordinarily sonorous, adding a depth and sympathy to the part that might otherwise have been missing.
He doesn’t say much, but American tenor Frederick Ballentine as Nick has a beautiful voice. A recent graduate of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Programme, he’s surely one to watch.
The musical style is narrative – there is nothing that could be described as an aria, but there are some great duets and the chorus parts are wonderful. The score is minimalist and often jarring. Its harsh dissonance accurately reflects what’s happening on the stage.
In our post #MeToo world The Handmaid’s Tale shouldn’t feel as relevant as it does. But the scenes of victim-blaming are all too familiar, while the attacks to women’s control over their own bodies in various US states should worry us all.
I keep asking myself two questions about this production: it is a feminist opera? And is it a good piece for a newcomer to the artform? It’s not easy to answer either.
The women in this opera suffer, as they do in many operas. But here their experiences are centred. However, we don’t learn of Offred’s fate. Is she ever reunited with Luke and their daughter? I guess that’s left up to each audience member to decide. We do know that Gilead no longer exists in the future.
I found the inclusion of what is essentially a rape scene – especially one facilitated by other women – very uncomfortable, but I do understand the reasons behind it.
Importantly, however, this production is entirely female led. Acclaimed Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro leads the orchestra, something that, shockingly, is still vanishingly rare in 2022. It’s truly moving when the whole female production team is invited on stage for the curtain call.
This is a challenging opera, from its dissonant musical style to its harsh subject matter. However, it’s sung in English, making it more accessible to an English-speaking audience, and it’s a story that will be familiar to many because of the popularity of the Hulu series.
In her first production as ENO’s artistic director, Annilese Miskimmon has created a thought-provoking, challenging and beautiful version of Atwood’s seminal novel. Powerful and disquieting, but ultimately moving, this production of The Handmaid’s Tale is a must see.
The Handmaid’s Tale has two remaining performances at the London Coliseum, on 12 and 14 April at 7.30om; tickets are available for both performances.
Kate Lindsey as Offred (right) and Avery Amereau as Serena Joy (left) in Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of The Handmaid’s Tale at the London Coliseum (Catherine Ashmore).