ENO Response 2023/24: The Handmaid's Tale

22nd February 2024 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

English National Opera’s (ENO) acclaimed production of Annilese Miskimmon’s (ENO’s Artistic Director) The Handmaid’s Tale returns to the ENO for its first revival.

This rarely staged and outstandingly relevant opera is based on Margaret Atwood’s seminal dystopian novel of the same name. A thought-provoking work which magnifies the issues of state control and the fragility of freedom, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a totalitarian state in which women, stripped of their identities and rights, are subjected to the whims of a patriarchal republic.

Poul Ruders (1949)
Libretto by Paul Bentley (based on the novel by Margaret Atwood)

Conductor, Joana Carneiro
Director, Annilese Miskimmon
Revival Director, James Hurley

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Chloe Sit
The Handmaid’s Tale Review – A Stellar Rendition of Atwood’s Classic

From our first step into the theatre, past the graphic content warning at the theatre’s entrance, we are thrown into the Orwellian mise-en-scene of The Handmaid’s Tale. A suspended assembly of faceless red cloaks as the harrowing centrepiece of the Symposium – an effectively adapted worldbuilding and introduction, supplemented by an appropriately postured, diplomatic speech by Juliet Stevenson as Professor Pixelxoto.

For a story that’s seen so many variations in form, it is surprising how fitting opera is for the plot of The Handmaid’s Tale. Atonal instrumentals, well-made set design, and compelling performances by the ENO stars bring Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale to life, unfolding in an authoritarian, misogynist future that forces fertile women (‘Handmaids’) to become surrogates to restore the Republic’s shattering population.

Annilese Miskimmon and the production team outdo themselves with a stunning set design and ingenious staging that carry the entire performance. A bold palette, straight out of Netflix’s Ratched, perfectly intensifies the true horror of the narrative. Costuming by Annemarie Woods further creates an unsettling contrast between the housewives’ prim Tiffany blue dresses and the Handmaids’ eerie, numbing shades of red. Combined, these create a flawless depiction of an unsettling, chilling backdrop that that dystopian genre demands. Miskimmon’s clever use of curtains in partitioning the stage, as well as levelling characters across the foreground and background to demonstrate hierarchy, compellingly unveils the underlying trepidation in a world gone awry.

Kate Lindsey, in her central performance as Offred, delivers a consistently controlled blend of fragility and defiance. Her duet with her past self (shown on a screen through curtains behind her) is particularly memorable, showcasing her fantastic stage presence and poignant resistance. Equally, if not more, stellar, is Avery Amereau’s strong portrayal of Serena Joy, delivering a perfectly conflicted mix of cruelty and desperation. Ruder’s orchestral writing, powerfully delivered by conductor Joana Carneiro, balances softer interludes with jarring bells, even weaving variations of Amazing Grace into the score in a brilliantly ironic touch.

Yet, despite the large cast of accomplished singers, it is perhaps a fault of the libretto that Lindsey and Amereau are the only singers that leave a mark. Clumsy and unconvincing, the plot seems almost ‘mansplained’ to the audience rather than conveying the characters’ emotions through dialogue. Audiences are left relying on the worldbuilding to evoke emotion and tell the story, with loosely-developed characterisation, such as the abruptly cut-off relationship between the Commander and Offred. Not to mention the short-lived storyline of Ofwarren, whose surreal birth scene and blood-curdling scream when her child is taken from her forms perhaps the most impactful moment of the opera.

Despite an underachieving libretto, Miskimmon’s Handmaid stuns in every aspect of the stage, and proves to be as relevant today as Atwood’s novel was in 1985, with women’s rights still fighting to survive. It’s incredibly rare for an adapted classic to do justice to its source material – The Handmaid’s Tale is a must-see of the season.


Pau Hernández Santamaria
Excellent and pointless at the same time

There seems to be a cliché about modern opera productions and their inability to connect with the 21st century audiences and, to be honest, I can be considered one of those people who wouldn’t appreciate a Wagnerian hero dressed as a surfer or a staging of La Bohème too far away from a Parisian attic. Nonetheless, ENO’s The Handmaid’s Tale is different. This production goes back to the roots of opera as a genre, as it brings to the operatic stage one of the most insightful and influential novels of the last 40 years, just as Verdi or Gounod would have done.

A spoken introduction by actress Juliet Stevenson, whose diction and stage presence are just magnificent, leads to the first notes of Poul Ruders’ score, and immediately we get involved in Offred’s tragic reality: forced to separate from her child and lover, she is now a Handmaid, a mere child-bearer object at the service of the extremely conservative society of Gillead. Her attempts to survive in such an inhuman environment are the driving motive of the plot, in which there is room for public lynching, illegal brothels and suggestive Scrabble games.

The whole show is impeccable from a technical point of view. Revival director James Hurley has done a great job at recreating every space where the action takes place, combining enormous outdoors structures and intimate private rooms. The stage transitions are amazingly fast, smooth and well-executed, so that almost no time is lost when a scene ends and making it feel like you’re watching a film. The ENO orchestra (wearing yellow shirts as a symbol of their protest for fair working conditions) showed an impressive dynamic contrast and a complete control of a complex score under Joana Carneiro’s conducting. As a low brass player myself, I feel obliged to highlight Nick Hitchens on tuba, who pulled off hard solo sections with excellence.

Unfortunately, I cannot say I connected very well with the music performed. When a book is turned into an opera it means that either the story or the psychology of the characters can be presented using operatic resources. Despite having a really strong cast (that felt underused), we barely got to hear memorable vocal moments or many sections overall that justified making an opera.

However, the figure of Kate Lindsey (Offred) stands out, delivering a superb performance in terms of acting and singing. Her occasional monologues, which were beautiful and passionate, and a couple of minimalist episodes were the only musical moments that felt musically special in a general atmosphere of atonality and tension-creating sonorities that resembled a poor soundtrack more than a meaningful accompaniment to the story.

ENO couldn’t have done a better job at putting this production together, and I believe the fandom of the novel will surely appreciate that. Whether the usual attenders of the Colisseum will become followers of Ruders’ music is still to be seen, but based on the length of the audience clapping, I wouldn’t bet on it.


Rebecca J Hall
A Dystopia Desperately Female

The Handmaid’s Tale is Paul Bentley and Poul Ruders’ opera based on Margaret Atwood’s much discussed bestselling novel. Director Annilese Miskimmon uses Ruders’ reduced instrumental version (2019) and this revival is as measured, discordant and dystopian as its premise. It is everything one wants in a modern opera: a dark tale of loved ones lost and brutal power games, combined with tense, discordant rhythms and spectacular singing. It offers, unusually, a window into life under oppression from the female perspective.

Kate Lindsey was the star of the show as Offred. Exquisite and sublime, her dexterous voice ranged from soft, strong sweetness, to pure despair. This production uniquely has Lindsey harmonising with a video-memory of herself, instead of another singer, as in the original version, for her pre-regime life. Her deep, fruity duets with Avery Amereau’s Serena Joy and James Creswell’s Commander caught the essence of the human jealousies at the centre of this opera. By contrast, Rachel Nicholls compelled in her powerful performance of the indoctrinated government aide, Aunt Lydia, dressed in army-green, completely committed in embracing totalitarian ideals and twisted bible verses.

Ruders’ phenomenal score is dark and moody, with constantly rising tension through clever balancing of sound, the orchestra never overwhelming the singers onstage. Every note has a purpose; utterly precise and powerfully evoking the dystopian society of Gilead. Conducted passionately by Joana Carneiro, the orchestra skilfully navigated jarring modernity, churchlike softness, and a considered butchery of Amazing Grace.

Set and costume designer Annemarie Woods created an aesthetically pleasing visual whole. The stone-carved ‘Gilead’ on the execution wall with an eye-come-camera-lens in the ‘e’ is a nod to the Big Brother state. A stylish 1980s chair matched those used in the Stasi HQ in East Berlin. Vintage illustrations are used for the supermarket signs and prayer slot-machines, backlit in soft white with pale blues and red, made shabby with watermarks and rust.

The costumes betrayed a crumbling society. The gold floor-length dress Offred wore to Jezebel’s is at first glance rather classy, until we note how it is a little too long, then we see the bruised prostitutes wearing identical dresses. The Handmaids are dressed in varying shades of faded red, the clothing telling how unsuccessful the Gilead economy is, with only the principals dressed in new fabric.

All of this was pulled together by the inspired choreography of revival movement director Anjali Mehra. The chorus portrayed controlled women, broken and helpless, slowly pacing in strong diagonal lines preferring safety in numbers. Each clasp the wrist indicating repression and restraint. Offred is constantly forced to retrace her steps backwards. When Ofwarren (dramatically played by Rhian Lois) gave birth on stage, the Handmaids exulted her as symbolically representing the hopes of them all, but her ‘delivering’ for Gilead was rewarded with inconsolable grief.

Thrillingly bookended by the mesmerising, considered diction of renowned actor Juliet Stevenson, The Handmaid’s Tale is not for the faint hearted. The production contains scenes of sexual assault, exploitation and execution. I recommend this tense production.


Oscar Cunnington
The Handmaid’s Tale bursts with moments of beauty but fails to realise the novel’s terrible beauty

Adapting a revered piece of work is always a high-risk exercise. Too much fidelity to the source material can limit the potential of telling the story in a new medium and too much innovation can risk alienating your audience and diluting what made the original worth adapting.

Unfortunately, the ENO’s revival of its 2022 staging of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale (2000) adaptation is caught between these competing vices. Staged by ENO Creative Director, Annilese Miskimmon, the production retells Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 dystopian novel in which the United States of America has been transformed via a religious coup into the theocratic totalitarian Republic of Gilead.

The book and opera follow Offred, a handmaid who is one of the few remaining women potentially able to have children. She is subjugated to a series of horrors including being imprisoned, indoctrinated and eventually passed from high-status male commander to commander to be raped via a specific ceremony in which the commanders’ wives are also present.

Throughout, projected film scenes show how Offred came to be in her situation; a burgeoning affair with a married man with whom she eventually has a child and a failed attempt to escape Gilead as the state clamp down on women’s rights. The repeated motif representing the tragic events that lead to her becoming estranged from her child does emotionally resonate and effectively shows the cruelty of this systemic misogynistic apparatus, but the films can often be a confusing counterpoint to the opera’s main plot.

Offred is played extremely powerfully by American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey and her few arias are some of the production’s high points. So too are her scenes with Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, sinisterly depicted by American contralto Avery Amereau and the production masterfully captures the complex relationship between two women of different status experience contrasting elements of patriarchal cruelty.
Ruders’ composition, conducted by Joana Carneiro, dominates the production with moments of real majesty punctuating what can often feel like a rather overbearing film score instructing the audience on how to feel in every scene. This is a shame because at times the score creates a truly compelling and unique soundscape. Strings and percussion unite to achieve a haunting shrillness that captures Offred’s isolation and the nightmare unfolding around her.

But whereas the source material’s power comes through its almost documentary-style telling of Gilead’s bureaucratic cruelty, the opera is forced to didactically explain the situation and can’t quite muster the horror so sublimely achieved both in what is said and what is not in the book.
No one would question the relevance of the story today but this production’s struggle to capture the novel’s subtlety ultimately leaves one feeling lectured rather than educated or moved. The faithful plodding of the plot overwhelms the musical innovation and leaves the impression that more risk-taking in its structure and storytelling was needed to recreate the power of the original.


Sophie Carlin
Haunting, thoughtful, and musically well-led: The Handmaid’s Tale deserves a packed-out audience

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been reimagined as a film and TV series but its devotees might doubt an operatic transformation could pack the same punch. They need have no qualms. Vividly painted, with distinct vocal lines for each character (a Peter and the Wolf approach to characterisation), English National Opera’s revival of its 2022 production is a searing portrayal of its brutality and extremity.

Faithful to the book, Poul Ruders’ opera is set in the Republic of Gilead, a fictional patriarchal theocracy which has, in an imagined future, overthrown the USA. With the birth rate tanking due to climate crisis, fertile women who are, sinfully, unmarried or remarried are made Handmaids, assigned to a childless couple for the husband to impregnate.

The casting of the protagonist, Handmaid Offred, must be strong for this opera to work. Librettist Paul Bentley seamlessly adapts Offred’s first-person narration of Atwood’s novel so the opera becomes a tape Offred recorded while in Gilead, which we’re listening to many years in the future. We see Gilead through Offred’s eyes, so need to be compelled by her to be compelled by this world. And my goodness, Kate Lindsey delivers. Her diction is crystal clear; her lower register and other-worldly head voice are equally strong; and her fragile whispers about her ‘emptiness’ hit me with their visceral, intense affectiveness.

Annilese Miskimmon’s production effectively exposes this society’s arbitrariness and banality. A brash cowbell clatters erratically throughout; the phrases given to Miss Trunchbull-esque Aunt Lydia (Rachel Nicholls), who trains the Handmaids with religious fervour, are pitched ridiculously high, trailing off into fanatical screeches; and the Handmaids pray for each other by buying prayers from slot machines. Small talk about toilets and weather sounds bizarre in an operatic register, neatly exposing the Gilead regime’s absurdity.

But this regime’s violence and brutality isn’t always convincingly portrayed. The stage combat was underpowered – the Act I tussle between Moira (Nadine Benjamin), and the Aunts and the Eyes (the police), for example, lacked energy. But it’s tricky – perhaps more realistic violence in a show about women would have been too confronting and disturbing, hitting too close to home.

Joana Carneiro’s conducting anchored the piece, necessarily precise for a chaotic score that risks becoming muddied and impressionistic. But she also, skilfully, allows some elasticity, a rubato quality, when needed, to create space for the singers’ expressiveness. The orchestra and chorus, themselves currently beset by tumult in their working lives, diligently followed her lead.

Offred reminisces between scenes – hallucinogenic and recursive, Akhila Krishnan’s video projections of Offred’s life before Gilead ripple on Annemarie Woods’s curtained set, flashing in and out of sight. In this way, the show flickers between interior life and exterior event, past and present, reality and dream. Offred reminds us of the hazy line between truth and fiction, a necessary caution in our troubled world, not as far away as we’d like from Gilead, a regime borne out of political, ecological and social chaos.


Jack Reilly
Dystopian nightmare has lasting capability to disturb

A symposium offers a rare opportunity: to listen to newly discovered cassette tapes detailing the life and times of a Handmaiden, Offred, from the former Republic of Gilead. Thus we are thrust into the horrid world of The Handmaid’s Tale – Poul Ruder’s opera, based on the seminal novel by Margaret Atwood, is a chilling, uncomfortable, yet captivating experience.
Ruder’s score is an eclectic one, delicate and crystalline and at the next instant horrifically dissonant. Moments of extreme intimacy are suddenly and violently dismantled by a battery of percussion – there is an oppressive quality that perfectly reflects the drama. The overbearing dogmatism of Gilead is reflected in the handmaids’ repetitive chanting, and scenes of sexual and physical violence are underpinned by the use of Amazing Grace as a grotesque cantus firmus. Each act climaxes in a overwhelming contrapuntal tour-de-force; Ruder’s masterful orchestration maintains the clarity of the interweaving lines at all times.
The score is wickedly difficult for the performers, but each and every one rises to its challenges with aplomb. The large ensemble cast is filled with exemplary performances. Avery Amereau (Serena Joy) possesses possibly the finest contralto voice I have ever heard, and soprano Rachel Nicholls brings a mad hysteria to her performance as Aunt Lydia. The whole is held in tight cohesion by the conducting of Joana Carneiro, although perhaps too tightly in the score’s rare moments of intimacy and reflection; her tempi are metrically ruthless. The ENO Orchestra recreate Ruder’s score with a ruthless and electric dedication.
Most stunning of all is the central performance of mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Offred. The role is nightmarishly challenging, both emotionally and technically, with the character suffering consistent assault to both body and mind. The tessitura is consistently uncomfortably high for a mezzo-soprano, and the character is onstage for what is practically the entirety of the drama’s 150-minute duration. Here we have a role that threatens to usurp the fiendish throne of Strauss’ Salome and Elektra in feats of endurance and skill for the central singer. Lindsey’s performance is captivating from the offset, never flagging in emotional intensity or technical prowess. It is a triumph.
I must however confess a certain emotional detachment from the stage action. There is a coldness to its relentless portrayal of the horrors committed in Gilead. The most violent aspects of the novel are censored (executions occur offstage and the novel’s ‘Wall’ is populated by photographic portraits of the executed, not their corpses), and the framing device of the symposium places the audience at a temporal distance from the drama. We view Gilead as through a thick fog, and in this cognitive dissonance between sheer horror and cold detachment is the opera’s most haunting aspect. I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is about director Annilese Miskimmon’s production that gnaws at my heart (a certain emotional confusion perhaps?); what is certain is that the drama and its implications have not left my mind in the many days since, such is its ability to disturb.


Hannah Bentley
The Handmaid’s Tale Review- awkward libretto overshadows stunning voices

Within a storm of funding issues, forceful relocation and musicians on strike, the ENO confirmed that this year’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale would go ahead just three days before opening night. The ENO’s opera season has featured reliable fan favourites to boost sales, and this revival promises exactly that after a successful run in 2022.

Danish composer, Poul Ruders, wrote the opera four years after Margaret Atwood published her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian story of oppression and religious extremism follows a handmaid, Offred, as she navigates her life under the ultra-conservative fascist rule of Gilead, formerly the USA.

As the book tackles difficult themes and tragic stories, it seems obvious that an opera should be drawn from the text as music can access emotional intensity in ways other performance modes cannot. Ruders said himself that the “operatic potential” was “staring [him] straight in the face”. So, needless to say, I had high expectations as I made my way to London’s Coliseum.

But despite some excellent performance aspects, my hopes were not quite met.

Reuters’ score, written in 1990, is an experimental marvel. He uses clanging metal bars to signal forthcoming danger, or mimic church bells representing the omni-presence of the religious dictatorship; scratchy violins to create a menacing swarm of notes, often used to wrench Offred out of a daydream from The Time Before; and ethereal hymn-like music plays over the Particicution, in which the handmaids are encouraged to beat a wrongly condemned man to death, raising the question ‘is this really God’s will?’

Joana Carneiro’s conducting is the method within the madness. She leans into the boisterous intensity of Ruder’s music while maintaining impeccable timing.

Designer, Annemarie Woods, played around with a restrained colour palette, using long blue surgical curtains to frame the stage, juxtaposing Juliet Stevenson Crisp white suit and the handmaid’s blood-red dresses. The Aunts are dressed in green khaki uniforms with batons always present on their waists, symbolising their militant authority.

And finally, Kate Lindsey (Offred) is a phenomenon. Her buttery mezzo-soprano voice is just as mesmerising as her acting. Each song and cry for her missing child is heartaching. Lindsey is on stage for nearly the entirety of the opera’s two-hour run time and never once lost my attention.

But sadly, it’s the clunky libretto that lets the opera down. Paul Bentley’s lyrics are often at odds with the score, filling phrases with too many syllables, making the unfortunate singer appear offbeat. Perhaps this is purposeful, and Bentley is playing up to the discordant feeling within such a hellish world. Nonetheless, I found it awkward and jarring, hindering the development of certain characters (Nadine Benjamin as Moira, Rachel Nicholls as Aunt Lydia), which is a shame because these women’s vocal talent is astonishing.

However, the show received a standing ovation. The singers took their cue to bow and the audience became a sea of yellow as opera goers waved brightly coloured leaflets to show solidarity with the striking musicians.