‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: a twisted musical fable about misogyny

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Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, this 1998 dystopian opera is a dark affair. The essential ingredient is the notion that America succumbed to a dictatorship of right-wing religious zealots in the early years of our present 21st century. At the time Ms. Atwood wrote her story, a theocratic, misogynistic regime controlled Iran, and she envisions the same happening in the US. The result is called the Republic of Gilead, where women are denied the right to work, own property, or even be literate.

In the early 1990s, Elaine Padmore, then director of opera at Covent Garden, commissioned the Danish composer Poul Ruders to write an opera based on the novel. To turn an inward-looking monologue into a stage work, she suggested that actor Paul Bentley write a libretto when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and theocratic rule was clearly misogyny.

Bentley’s libretto complements the opera with a late 22nd-century symposium, chaired by a university professor, who looks back on events in the early 21st century. In this new production by English National Opera artistic director Annilese Miskimmon, the professor, smartly dressed in a white pantsuit, was played by French actress Camille Cottin. Choosing a French actress for a speaking role in English is bizarre. Native French speakers tend to keep their English intonation, and her slightly slurred diction made me look at the surtitles to see what she was saying.

After this awkward start, the narrative seemed to lose its thread, particularly with several flashbacks showing a father and child in Gilead being separated by criminal officers armed with AK-47 rifles. Such a cliched staging may be on its way out, but here it was nothing compared to the violence we witnessed, with two hanged women taking center stage, a man beating to death by the maids and a woman suicide by hanging . The opera shows a very sombre regime. No woman may transgress the bounds of chastity outside of her first marriage, and second marriages are not recognized despite a low fertility rate and the need to procreate.

For an operatic treatment, this is a tough nut to crack, and Poul Ruders’ music delivers an unrelenting coldness rarely tempered by musical warmth. The first glimpse of real lyricism comes when the heroine Offred sings “What I Feel Is Emptiness,” beautifully sung by Kate Lindsey. There are no big moments and the composer seems to have lost himself in the details.

Rather than an opera, The Handmaid’s Tale is more of a fable about the emptiness of totalitarianism. Given the current Russian attempt to create such a state in Ukraine, the timing of this new ENO staging is unfortunate, to say the least.

Fine singing from the choir and soloists, and the Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro kept a firm grip on the orchestral sound, but some people left early. It was an evening not to be missed.


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