The Handmaid’s Tale – ENO (5 April)

The Handmaid’s Tale – an opera in a prologue, a prelude, two acts and an epilogue [UK premiere]

Offred – Stephanie Marshall / Heather Shipp
Aunt Lydia – Helen Field
Serena Joy – Deborah Hawksley
The Commander – Stephen Richardson
Ofglen – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Luke – Andrew Rees
Offred’s mother – Liane Keegan
Moira – Alison Roddy
Janine/Ofwarren – Mary Nelson
Nick – Richard Coxon
Doctor – John Graham-Hall
Professor Pieixoto – Will Keen

Phyllida Lloyd – director
Peter McKintosh – designer
Simon Mills – lighting
Andrew George – choreographer

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Elgar Howarth

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 April, 2003
Venue: Coliseum, London

Operas on topical subjects occur regularly these days. Poul Ruders thus takes his place with such as John Adams and Mark-Anthony Turnage – whose The Silver Tassie, with its underlying theme of social dislocation brought about by cultural collapse, offers an oblique lead-in to the human alienation of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Published in 1985 and made into a striking film five years later, Margaret Atwood’s novel is an attack on the intolerance in American society evident in the rise of Christian fundamentalism during the Reagan years. Like other futuristic novels of the post-war era, elements from Orwell and Huxley intertwine to create something not intrinsically new but contextually relevant. Although librettist Paul Bentley has struck a viable balance between the narrative and symbolic in Atwood’s novel, characterisation has been made two-dimensional to a degree which markedly affects the dramatic impact of Ruders’s music.

The opera falls into a prelude and two acts – with a prologue and epilogue set at a symposium of the International Historical Convention Association in 2195, and which appear on a video screen. Here, Professor Pieixoto (played by Will Keen as a latter-day James Burke) introduces the taped memories of Offred, recorded 190 years before. The scenario takes place in 2005 (moved forward from 2002 in the original production), the United States having mutated into the Christian Fundamentalist Republic of Gilead – a rigidly hierarchical society in which women are reduced largely to figurative wives and procreative handmaids. The main protagonist, Offred (as in ’of Fred’ – a syntactical conceit worthy of Nancy Mitford) relives her ’nightmare’ in a linear sequence of flashbacks: life with her husband Luke and their daughter overtaken by the collapse of the US administration through a combination of natural and human disasters – culminating in their disappearance and her forced absorption into the community of handmaids which serves the male upper echelon.

The Prelude takes place in the Red Centre, from which the handmaids graduate. Musically, this is the most frenetic part of the opera – the cluster of female voices in heightened emotional states having a piercing quality redolent of scenes from Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel or Poulenc’s Carmelites (an opera with which director Phyllida Lloyd made her ENO debut some four years ago). Indeed, as the opera progresses, the preponderance of soprano and mezzo registers strikes something of an ironic note: the more so as, with the exception of The Commander, implicitly dubious about the society he has helped to instigate, none of the male roles develop out of their narrative functions into a deeper personality.

Musically, this is compounded by the merely incidental aspects of humanity that the characters evince – notably Serena Joy, wife of The Commander and a gospel singer in the previous era, whose appearances are marked by “Amazing Grace” to increasingly tiresome effect. And yet, with the exception of Aunt Lydia, automaton-like patron saint to the handmaids, none of the main protagonists is devoid of human vulnerability; rather their few opportunities to display it are not always well taken. Part of the problem lies with Ruders’s musical idiom: ambiguously tonal, and with a resourceful and very ’Nordic’ use of pedal points to underline tension, but too undifferentiated harmonically and texturally to sustain emotional continuity across scenes and between acts – though Act 2 does resolve most of the dramatic loose-ends created by its predecessor.

Moreover, the diaphanous quality of the more intimate passages is undermined by too liberal a use of electronic keyboards, with end-of-scene denouements all too often reinforced by brief dynamic crescendos. The split-time duet between Offred and her double from ’The Time Before’ (Act 2, Scene 9) lacks true pathos, and while Offred’s principal monologues (Act 1, Scene 6, and Act 2, Scene 15) access the depths of her personality, the climactic quartet of the main characters (Act 2, Scene 19) fails to effect true empathy. As Offred is removed beyond the bounds of narrative, there is a nagging feeling that we should feel more responsive to her destiny – whether in the dark or the light.

The ENO production is by and large persuasive in its handling of a complex and often sprawling drama. Phyllida Lloyd makes maximum dramatic use of the starkly simple sets and ’caste’ colouring derived from the Royal Danish Opera production (those who recall the sci-fi series “Blake’s Seven” may have smiled in unintended amusement), with Peter McKintosh’s designs and Simon Mills’s lighting employed to telling effect. Stephanie Marshall – whose Sonya was a highlight of last season’s War and Peace – is an involving and impressively secure Offred, complemented by the deceptively passive Ofglen of Rebecca de Pont Davies. Deborah Hawksley (replacing on this night an indisposed Catherine Wyn-Rogers) is passingly sympathetic as the hapless Serena Joy, Stephen Richardson fallibly human as The Commander, and Helen Field formidably impersonal as Aunt Lydia.

Elgar Howarth secures orchestral playing both luminous and incisive, though certain brass-dominated passages need to be toned down to let vocal lines through – especially as no synopsis is included in the programme, and many attendees will not have read through the libretto beforehand. A point to remember in this absorbing presentation of an opera which, irritating and thought-provoking by turns, offers – and, sad to say, will continue to offer – undeniable food for thought.

  • Further performances on April 9, 11, 14, 25 & May 2 at 7.30. Box Office: 020 7632 8300
  • English National Opera
  • A recording of the Royal Danish Opera production of The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Dacapo 8.224165-66 (2 CDs)

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