Years before Elisabeth Moss first put on Offred’s red kirtle and glowered at the camera from under a white visor, years before the TV series took Margaret Atwood’s book way beyond its ending, there was The Handmaid’s Tale: the opera, by the composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley. It was premiered in Copenhagen in 2000 and staged at English National Opera three years later. Now, slightly revised by its authors – and, after Trump and 6 January, seeming more urgently relevant than ever – it’s back in a new staging, the first opera directed here by Annilese Miskimmon since she became ENO’s artistic director.
We are at a symposium listening to a newly discovered cassette tape, an artefact from Gilead, presented by an academic played by the actor Camille Cottin. Offred’s voice speaks to us first through the tape, sounding as delicate and distant as old shellac records – and then Kate Lindsey takes over in person, beginning a magnetic central performance in which it’s her voice, with its superbly controlled mix of sweetness and substance, that reveals as much as her actions.
The full horror of her situation takes time to be revealed, perhaps too long: the Commander doesn’t turn up on stage for nearly an hour, and the executions in which every handmaid must be complicit happen only towards the end. The Wall displays photographs of the dead, not their hanging bodies. Yet there is subtle menace in the way the characters move in regimented lines in front of the long conference-centre curtains of Annemarie Woods’s set – and, indeed, throughout Ruders’s evocative score, vibrantly played by the ENO orchestra conducted by Joana Carneiro. High, chiming percussion adds a sheen of artificiality, and borrowings from other styles throw up brief associations: there’s a wrenching use of Bach in one of many flashbacks involving Offred’s little daughter. She’s played by the real-life daughter of Rhian Lois, who as Janine is part of a strong supporting cast along with Avery Amereau, Pumeza Matshikiza, Susan Bickley and others.
Despite Carneiro’s care, and even though Ruders has reportedly scaled back some of the scoring since the premiere, there are still passages that seem simply noisy, including much of the music for Aunt Lydia, which, despite a tour de force performance from Emma Bell, is pitched so high the surtitles are essential if you want to understand the words. The most effective moments are often the quietest, especially Offred’s intricate duet with her recorded former self – one of many grainy video flashbacks projected onto the curtains in a way that suggests The Time Before is simultaneously light-years away and close enough to touch.
Much was made of the fact that there was an all-female production team, with some two dozen female staffers taking a bow at the first-night curtain call. But while this opera tells a woman’s story ostensibly from a woman’s perspective, it’s not the feminist call to arms that the TV series had time and space to develop into: things happen to Offred, not because of her. If ENO wants to stage a real feminist opera it needs to look further, to more recent works, but this is at least a step in the right direction.