English National Opera 2021-22 Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Kate Lindsey Produces A Role Dominating Performance As The Handmaid

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Such has been the success of Margret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” that, since its publication in 1985, it now finds itself positioned alongside other major 20th century dystopian novels, drawing comparisons with Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Like them, it has entered the cultural mainstream, spawning plays, films, a ballet, a major television series, and is a regular inclusion in schools’ English Literature syllabuses, to the extent that the symbolic significance of the red handmaid costume with its white winged bonnet is now immediately recognizable.

In 2000 Poul Ruders added to this list of works with his opera, premiered at The Royal Danish Opera, which has since gone on to receive numerous productions across the world, including a 2003 production at English National Opera (ENO). Now under the artistic direction of Annilese Miskimmon ENO has staged a new production. It is a decision which in itself affirms the quality of Ruders’ opera, but no doubt one which was also aimed at attracting a new audience on the back of the public interest following the recent TV series.

Ruders, along with his librettist Paul Bentley, sticks closely to Atwood’s novel, retaining its significant events and characters, and of course its powerful message; one which exposes the tyranny that inevitably results when a society adopts an ideology, be it religious or otherwise, in which the individual is forced through threat of force to conform to its rigid tenets. Whereas Atwood treats her characters at a distance in order to magnify the polemical effect of the text, Ruders’ opera focuses more on developing the extreme emotions the characters are forced to endure, however. Events are somewhat reordered so that Acts One and Two are presented with a degree of symmetry and balance. The Symposium on The Republic of Gilead, for example, which concludes the novel, is divided into two parts, so that it both opens and finishes the opera. It also successfully acts a device for providing the historical context for the events which follow, especially useful for audience members who may not have read the novel.

Set Designs Lack Imagination

By retaining so many of the events from the book, Bentley condensed the narrative, which had the effect of accentuating its episodic nature. Not that this is in itself a problem: it actually turns it into a fast moving piece. Unfortunately, the unimaginative sets, designed by Annemarie Woods, meant that they had to be changed almost on a scene by scene basis, which hampered the momentum, and was also distracting to say the least. The sets tended to be fairly basic, moreover: for the most part consisting of only one or two props or simply a curtain. Particularly grim was the staging of the nightclub scene which consisted essentially of a piano, placed centre stage and the name of the club, “Jezebel’s,” in big letters hanging from above.

There were, however, one or two well constructed settings. The Soul Scrolls scene in particular stood out as being both telling and amusing, in which Offred and Ofglen put counters into gaming machines and won prayers as prizes. The wall on which the dead bodies were hung was also cleverly imagined, with photographs of the dead placed on rows beneath the Eye of Gilead.

Woods was far more successful with her costume designs, which successfully helped define the characters and were generally pleasing on the eye. Of course, she had little maneuver when it came to the handmaids. Jettisoning the red costumes was never going to be an option.

Clear Direction

Miskimmon directed the production herself, and despite the sets, she did a fine job. The characters were clearly and convincingly defined, and each scene was sensitively developed. Moreover, the dynamic which forces the narrative forward caused by the conflict between the characters’ underlying natures and the very unnatural situations in which they find themselves was clearly presented, as was the resulting emotional fallout. She also paid close attention to the work’s textual and musical subtleties, which added depth and a sense of realism to their portrayal; even in such a dangerous and oppressive society there is a place for comedy and tenderness. Yet, she was always careful to ensure the violence upon which the regime is founded was always to the fore: armed guards in black balaclavas were frequently seen watching over the handmaids.

The flashback scenes were handled well. Played behind a transparent curtain, and sensitively lit, with Offred positioned in front so that she was able to interact with her memories. Although Miskimmon was unable to overcome the distractions caused by the frequent set changes, she nevertheless managed to maintain a pleasing pace to the performance.

Ruders’ inventive and eclectic score, which successfully marries tonal with atonal while introducing a range of musical styles including religious chanting, 20th century expressionism and minimalism, was given a dramatically taut, detailed and emotionally sensitive reading by the Orchestra of the English National Opera under the baton of Joana Carneiro. Whilst always attentive to the changing dramatic significance of the score, she expertly drew out its richly colored range of textures, and displayed particular care in controlling the tempi and dynamic contrasts of the music, which gave it a clearly defined shape and drew attention to Ruders’ fascinating orchestration.

For such a brutal and violent narrative the music contains a surprising amount of warmth and delicacy, which Carneiro brilliantly presented, and which had the knock-on effect of sharpening its dramatic impact.

Lindsey’s Role Defining Performance

After having escaped Gilead’s security forces, Offred recorded a series of tapes of her life under the regime, and it is these personal experiences which form the substance of the opera. As such everything is seen from her perspective, everything revolves around her, it is she who dominates the narrative to the extent she is rarely off stage. The role, therefore, requires a singing actress with stamina and quality; a weak performance would significantly undermine the whole presentation. Fortunately, with mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey cast in the role a strong performance was almost certainly guaranteed, and she did not disappoint.

Her finely tuned singing was expertly rendered to bring out the full emotional power and subtleties of the role, in which she moved convincingly between fear, bewilderment, tenderness, anger and love, with flashes of humor neatly placed, as she moulded her voice with keenly positioned accents, dynamic infections and a variety of subtle colors, supported by a versatile acting performance

One of the misconceptions many people have about “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is that it is a feminist work aimed at attacking a patriarchal system in which men, who hold the power, abuse women, who are powerless. It is something Atwood herself has been at pains to correct. In Gilead, it is not just women who suffer, and it is not just men who abuse, and this was a point clearly illustrated in this production. The Commander, for example, played by bass-baritone Robert Hayward, is one of the creators of Gilead and a senior figure within the regime, yet he was portrayed as an emotionally hollowed-out man, who gets no pleasure from forcing himself on Offred and instead breaks his own rules, under penalty of death, in an attempt to find emotional connections. In what was a fine performance, he tended to keep his emotions at a distance, for the most part delivering his lines strongly, but fairly dispassionately.

Soprano Emma Bell in the role of Aunt Lydia was hysterically committed to the regime, and used her power unswervingly to punish anyone who transgressed. Her determination to do her duty was superbly reflected in her high lying tessitura, which was suitably harsh, steely and brutally accented, without warmth.

Contralto Avery Amereau was cast as the Commander’s wife Serena Joy, but there was no joy for her in Gilead. She lives in relative luxury with the power of life and death over her handmaid, which she is more than happy to use, yet has to watch her husband raping Offred in order to have a child. Amereau has a beautifully dark and sensuous contralto, which she used convincingly to capture her humiliation and pain, with an emotionally compelling performance.

There were also heroes, both men and women, who risked their lives for others or simply to survive. Tenor Frederick Ballentine as Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur and odd-job man, risks everything to ensure Offred escapes. He possesses a pleasing tenor with a firm tone which he used sensitively to define his character. Singing with great deal of emotional power, mezzo-soprano Pumeza Matshikiza was an energetic, spirited and feisty Moira. Refusing to buckle under the violence of the regime and proving herself a loyal friend to Offred, she was the epitome of the human spirit. Handmaids are not allowed to be alone when leaving their house, but must be accompanied by another handmaid. Ofglen, played by soprano Elin Pritchard, is appointed as Offred’s shopping companion. She convincingly developed her character with a well-sung, well-acted performance as a strong-willed, practical woman, who acts courageously to help others. During the flashbacks we are offered glimpses of Ofred’s family in the time before Gilead. Offred’s Mother was played by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley while her husband Luke was played by tenor John Findon. Both performed well.

The other supporting characters were all given successful portrayals. Soprano Rhian Lois gave an emotionally versatile and forceful vocal performance as Janine, who later becomes Ofwarren. Emotionally frail, she is completely unsuited to demands of the regime, and eventually succumbs to mental collapse. Tenor Alan Oke created a thoroughly dislikable portrait of the Doctor, who casually abused his position, piling further pressure on Offred. Mezzo-soprano Annabella-Vesela Ellis was parted in the small role of New Ofglen, but was still able to command attention with an attractive, well-sung performance. Rita is a Martha, the housekeeper in the Commander’s house, who, preferring the status quo, has little sympathy for Offred. She was given a solid performance by mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw. The spoken role of Professor Pieixoto was parted by Camille Cottin, who convinced as the academic spokesperson.

The female chorus of English National Opera sang superbly, and was expertly choreographed by Imogen Knight. The arrival of the chanting handmaids in two parallel lines perfectly conjured up the regulated religious nature which underlies the work, and was one of the more powerful images of the presentation.

Even for those members of the audience who have never read Atwood’s novel or seen the television series, this would still have been an easily accessible and entertaining opera, in which the relevance of its dystopian vision must surely have resonated. For those audience members who already knew the work, they cannot have been disappointed for it captures so much of the original work, while adding greater emotional depth. Moreover, it is a production which in purely musical terms was excellent throughout. And whilst the sets lacked a certain degree of imagination, the direction successfully brought the scenes alive, which were well-crafted and populated with clearly defined characters. Overall, it was a presentation which proved the worth of Ruders and Bentley’s opera.


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