Modern opera is difficult to execute well, because no matter how good it is it will always be judged against the classics. English National Opera’s performance of The Handmaid’s Tale exceeded all expectations in that regard. Visually and musically interesting, The Handmaid’s Tale was composed by Poul Ruders and directed by Annilese Misksimmon, and effectively utilises Williams’ memory play trope, creating an overwhelming sensation of both unease and hope.
on its way to joining the rest of the classics
The Handmaid’s Tale follows the fall of the United States and the rise of a religious extremist country, Gilead, in the wake of plummeting birth rates. Women are stripped of all their rights, becoming Handmaids selected based on their fertility and then forced to serve as surrogates to the priviliged few in the new government. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such Handmaid – Offred (Kate Lindsey) - as she navigates the authoritarian context she now finds herself in.
The Handmaid’s Tale had many strengths, not least the recreation of the atmosphere of Gilead. The religious influences in the music were clear, from the call and response between Aunt Lydia (Emma Bell) and the other Handmaids that brought to mind the call and response between preachers and congregations, to variations of Amazing Grace being played in the background before and during the Ceremony.
The opera played around with Offred’s identity – her collective identity as a Handmaid and her as an individual and protagonist. From clothing her in a brighter shade of red to the other Handmaids, to then making her invisible in the gold uniform of the Jezebels; to the variation in her melodies within her exchanges with other Handmaids, but then returning her to obscurity within the plainsong style used by the Handmaids chorus. The exploration of the fluctuations in her identity were fascinating to watch and decipher. Offred’s solos fell into a type of stream of consciousness, with the drawback being that more hurtful or painful moments came off as humorous simply due to word choice.
An opera is only as strong as its singers, and whilst some of the characters were underdeveloped due to the volume of story and time constraints, Ruders seemed determined to fit everything in. The most impressive part of Lindsey’s performance was when she sang a duet with herself as a past and present Offred, showing the internalised conflict of the character as she relived a tragic memory. Whilst Lindsey’s performance suggested that we should trust Offred as a narrator, the memory aspect of the opera would suggest otherwise, and this led to some nuance within Offred’s development.
The main offense of The Handmaid’s Tale was framing Offred’s character around the men in her life - Luke (her husband), The Commander and Nick - even though it is not supposed to be the central focus. This was mostly done by the academic symposium setting that bookended the opera. Another example of this was the changing dynamic and relationship between Offred and the Commander which was never fully developed or explored. In fact, the power dynamic between characters – a major part of the novel – was mostly ignored.
In trying to worldbuild, The Handmaid’s Tale over-extended itself. The opera also never quite resolved its issues with pacing; the beginning dragged, albeit with necessary exposition, but the following scenes were unevenly paced, partly due to the opera’s non-linear structure. Whilst this only contributed to the memory play aspects of the opera, the narrative felt uneven at times simply due to its pacing, but to the opera’s credit it did add to the overall atmosphere of unease.
Between us and Offred’s story there were three levels of separation; the first between us and the academic lens represented by Professor Pieixoto (Camille Cottin); secondly, between the academic lens and Offred’s story, and thirdly, between us and Offred. This meant that more brutal and horrifying moments became less immediate or shocking, normalising the violence that occurred as just part of life in Gilead.
Adaptations of tenets of pop culture should look to add to the existing conversation and unfortunately this opera fell short of doing so. Between the overall simplifications and degrees of separation, there was nothing in it that either already hadn't been said or the opera did not develop as fully as it needed to. The Handmaid’s Tale is not an easy story to tell, but despite its faults, this opera is on its way to joining the rest of the classics.