When Margaret Atwood’s published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 it caused a stir. In the author’s dystopian novel, young women who have transgressed the societal rules of authoritarian republic Gilead, are sentenced to spend the rest of their child-bearing years producing offspring for childless couples.
You don’t need to look very far to understand where Canadian Atwood got her inspiration from for the book. Infertility, surrogacy, abortion are still topics around which there is much controversy and debate. Atwood took it one step further however and explores what could happen if a religious state used young vulnerable women as ‘walking wombs’ to regenerate aging populations.
So how does this translate to opera?
There was much excitement and buzz on opening night at English National Opera. The stage, on entering the Coliseum, was already set. Row upon row of what appeared to be silent figures clothed in red hooded cloaks stared out at us – except they had no faces. This magnificent creepy set, suggestive of witchery and puritanism, points to Atwood’s premise that far from being the land of liberty, America, where the novel is set, was originally a land of repressive patriarchy.
The set had as all reaching for our iPhone pre-performance. Visually at least, the opera augured well, and it had to for me. I was a Handmaid novice, having not read the book or seen the series. I needed pointers all the way along in this opera.
In this respect, director Annilese Miskimmon, enjoying her directorial debut at ENO, did a fine job in simplifying the book’s complex narrative. There are three time frames, all relating to Offred, the handmaiden and central protagonist.
The opera opens onto the present, where a historical symposium in 2195AD is taking place. Professor Pieoxto, opening the event, reveals the discovery of an audio cassette left by a handmaid, which will give the delegates insights into the totalitarian regime of Gilead that was. Offred’s Gilead past plays out on stage, interspersed with flashbacks of her freer life pre-Gilead, when Offred lived happily with Luke, the father of her five-year-old daughter.
The flashbacks were neatly handled by Miskimmon with black and white lighting (see header image)
Composer Poul Ruders’s orchestration also served to illustrate Offred’s different lives . The score for Offred’s life pre-Gilead, was at first whimsical, Bernsteinesque. The tone soon hardened as she entered Gilead. Repetitive, grinding violins, dense circular music leading to nowhere, reenforced the oppressive atmosphere. Rhythmic percussion, an eerie bell, encapsulated the indoctrination of the handmaids in the Red Centre. Handmaids chanted religious rules taken straight out of the bible to the grotesque shrill commands of Aunt Lydia, their overseer.
Emma Bell was exceptional on the opening night as the tyrannical Lydia – Composer Ruders describes the aria he wrote for her (although I am not sure you can call it that) as a ‘demented coloratura’ moment. Her high shrills had some of us eyeing the dress circle doors end of Act 1, and a stiff drink was required in the ENO bar during the interval.
In Act II Ruders brought in different colours and moods. At times it felt filmic and expansive, at other times tense and suspenseful. I wasn’t surprised to read that this was Ruders’s first opera (it was first staged in Denmark in 2000) Ruders’s orchestration was assured. Vocally, less so. The terrain was however bleak on stage and lyricism had to be rationed.
And yet the cast of magnificent singers drew the most from their parts as handmaids. Kate Lindsey, singing Offred, had more opportunity to display her vocal skills. Her clean Mozartian voice that came through in the later scenes of Act II, was haunting as were her oft repeated lines: “What I feel is emptiness.” “I must not feel”. They gained in poignancy as the story wore on and her emotional confusion as she enters an affair with the Commander was well expressed.
Atwood’s presentation of the Commander’s childless wife, Serena Joy, is interesting. Serena Joy, deftly interpreted by contralto Avery Amereau, was as manipulative as her husband. The scenes between the three of them will be forever etched in my memory, notably the enactment of the impregnation scene, the most shocking, where Offred, knees over her head on a doctor’s couch, is pinned down by the wife from behind, leaving the Commander to do his job.
Atwood was intelligent enough to observe that women are not the only victims in the Republic of Gilead. Nick, the Commander’s security guard is at the Commander’s beck and call, ‘for the money’ he admits. Frederick Ballentine’s in the role displayed his vibrant tenor. Sadly, it was never allowed to take flight.
Atwood’s wicked humour provided some respite from this gruesome hell. Bass-baritone Robert Hayward, as the enigmatic Commander was superbly dignified when he wanted to be. And creepy, when he suggested an illegal Scrabble game. Interaction with handmaids, other than the sexual act, is strictly prohibited in Gilead.
This is an opera to experience for its shock value and wonderful staging. Also for Kate Lindsey’s luminous performance. And I can guarantee that you won’t leave the performance untouched.
The Handmaid’s Tale runs for two more performances: Tuesday 12th and Thursday 14th April.