THE HANDMAID’S TALE | London, Coliseum

English National Opera’s new artistic director, Annilese Miskimmon, has created a brand new production of Poul Ruders’ 2000 opera, after Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel. Soprano Kate Lindsey is absolutely mesmeric as Offred, a “handmaid” forced to bear a child by a commander (Robert Hayward) in a nightmarish dystopia.

The opera is expertly cast, from the disturbing, gravelly wavering of the old commander (Robert Hayward) to the sweet, plummy tenor of household servant Nick (Frederick Ballentine). Conductor Joana Carneiro tackles Ruders’ huge, frightening score with technical brilliance: the orchestral playing is probably the highlight.

The main issue with the opera is how to make sense of the incredibly dissonant score and aggressive vocal writing. When Aunt Lydia (Emma Bell) screams “penetrated!” at the top of her lungs and register, to a deafening orchestral swell, the effect is so obviously and one-dimensionally evil that it’s hard to understand how the Gilead regime even functions at all: worse, the whole thing just seems silly.

Musically, this new production is a triumph, but it isn’t enough: with such an expressionistic, terrifying score, the opera requires deft direction that focuses our attention on the willingness of participants at every stratum of Gilead. In a post #MeToo world, we can no longer get away with being reductive.

Playing 8 – 14 April 2022 at the London Coliseum.

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