sat 20/04/2024

The Handmaid's Tale, English National Opera review - last chance saloon for sub-Atwood baggy monster | reviews, news & interviews

The Handmaid's Tale, English National Opera review - last chance saloon for sub-Atwood baggy monster

The Handmaid's Tale, English National Opera review - last chance saloon for sub-Atwood baggy monster

Kate Lindsey is the saving, amazing grace of Poul Ruders’ lumpy music drama

Kate Lindsay's superbly sung and acted Offred (right) with Avery Amereau's Serena Joy All images by Zoe Martin for ENO

Never underestimate the enduring power of a great story over an unwieldy operatic setting. Few of us who saw the first ENO production of The Handmaid’s Tale back in 2003 thought the work stood much chance of revival. Yet Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel has justifiably gained even greater hold since then, so here we are on a third run of Poul Ruders’ baggy monster.

If there’s a reason to go, it has to be American mezzo Kate Lindsey’s transcendent performance as Offred, one of the many “handmaids” enslaved in the Republic of Gilead to bear children for the wives of powerful men. I missed this production first time round – there were very few performances – but if I agree about anything with Jessica Duchen, who reviewed it for theartsdesk then, it has to be about Lindsey.

Juliet Stevenson in The Handmaid's TaleTrue, Offred gets some of the few lyrically-set lines in the opera, but even when Lindsey is negotiating the uningratiating side of Ruders’ vocal setting – most of it – you almost forget how bad it is (a clumsy fit for Paul Bentley’s libretto, itself not always felicitous).

The framework is perfection, simply because the cadences and pauses of Juliet Stevenson’s pitch-perfect conference speaker (pictured right) aren’t subject to Ruders’ hard grind. Only a few of Lindsey’s singing colleagues come out equally unscarred – chiefly true contralto Avery Amereau as Serena Joy, former televangelist and wife of the Commander, Offred’s master, and Eleanor Dennis as the fellow Handmaid who turns out (not much of a spoiler) to be part of a resistance group within the compound (Dennis and Lindsey pictured below).

Rachel Nicholls is the latest soprano to fall victim to the hideous vocal writing for Aunt Lydia, a one-dimensional harridan in Ruders’ opera (there’s more to her in the novel). Other impressive singers like Nadine Benjamin, Susan Bickley and Rhian Lois seem wasted in roles which could have so much more of an impact in a better operatic adaptation. Scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'The men are ciphers, the flashbacks to pre-Gilead times awkward. Annilese Miskimmon’s production, revived here by James Hurley, is spare and sketchy, but that’s probably Ruders’ fault (though Phyllida Lloyd did a better job, I think, in 2003). If the composer has a virtue, it’s in the varied orchestral writing: baleful tubas, eerie seraphic strings. It's not all atonal or polytonal: major and minor triads often let us gain some moorings and discover, like Offred, where we are.

Yet all this alternation between thrashes and oases of calm has little truly operatic-dramatic sense of developing tension.Another skilled practitioner, conductor Joana Carneiro, is similarly not to blame, and the ENO Orchestra, like the Chorus, acquits itself well as always. It's an opportunity wasted which could have been so different in the hands of a more instinctively theatrical composer. Maybe it's someone else's turn to have a try. The only question is whether ENO would still be around to champion it should that happen.

Even when Lindsey is negotiating the uningratiating side of Ruders’ vocal setting - most of it - you almost forget how bad it is

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters