London Coliseum, English National Opera, ENO (studio)
03 February 2024 (released)
03 February 2024
In post Roe v. Wade times, where abortion is banned in 24 US states, misogynist influencer Andrew Tate is the third most googled person, and international conflicts are threatening stability on a global scale, the post-apocalyptic world of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ feels closer than ever. ENO’s production of Poul Ruders’ 1998 opera, directed by Annilese Miskimmon, pushes the boundaries of enjoyment, but is accomplished in telling this pertinent tale.
The adaptation, back at the London Coliseum after a successful run last year, is part of ENO’s ongoing ambition to introduce new audiences to opera. After Bruce Miller’s hugely successful television series, this story has become a cultural phenomenon, helping to draw in punters who might have otherwise never considered the artform.
This strive for relevancy is clear, with signs prompting you to ‘hashtag’ your experience on socials and bright neon ‘choose opera’ tees on sale. Despite these attempts, the opera still feels like a place for those with high-brow tastes and wealth. I couldn’t help but feel slightly intimidated by the baroque building and hat-wearing crowd.
Once the curtain rises, differences are put aside, and we are all delegates in a history convention. The year is 2195 and an academic (Camille Cotton) has unearthed artifacts from the dystopian city of Gilead. They are audio tapes, which hold the biography of our protagonist Offred (Kate Lindsey), a handmaid forced to live under a brutal misogynistic regime, where women's purpose has been stripped down to childbearing or sex alone.
These tapes are a useful narrative device for the rest of the opera, allowing for the 2 hour, 20 minute performance to successfully explore the key moments of the novel. There are two acts, both of which build up to dramatic final scenes, the first centered around ‘birth’ and the second around ‘death’.
Ruders’ discordant and ominous score, conducted by Joana Carneiro, heightens the suspense throughout and increases the catastrophic climaxes. It's noisy, disconcerting, and sometimes flat- out jarring, but it evokes the dread of Gilead perfectly.
It’s a similar story for Bentley’s libretto, which despite mezzo-soprano Lindsey's gut-wrenching performance and infallible voice, doesn’t leave much room for melody. Other outstanding cast members were soprano Nadine Benjamin as the vigilant Moira and tenor Zwakele Tshabala as Offred’s love interest Nick.
Annemarie Woods' set is dynamic, colorful and highly engaging. The choreography of the cast and scenery brings the story of our handmaid to life as much as the libretto (which is helpfully subtitled above the stage). Flashbacks of life before are projected onto curtains, a whole jazz club emerges from the floor, and militant marching scenes showcase the impressive size of the cast.
Overall, it’s this evocative setting and the highly-skilled talent that make this opera so memorable. Whilst I won’t be hurrying to listen to the score again anytime soon, my time in Gilead was a thrilling one, and I was left with powerful reflections on the fragility of democracy.
You can see The Handsmaid’s Tale at the London Coliseum until the 15th February.