ENO @ Coliseum, London, 3, 5, 9, 11, 14, 25 April, 2 May 2003
Margaret Atwood's novel of the right-wing fundamentalist republic of Gilead - formed in 2005 when the corrupt and polluted United States collapsed - was disturbing when first published in 1985 and is even more so now.
Women are now denied rights and in a new world where the birthrate has plummeted, child-bearing becomes the most important - indeed almost the only - focus of a woman's life.
Using the precendent from the Genesis story of Bilhah bearing a child by Jacob for the barren Rachel, fertile women who have transgressed are enslaved and become "handmaidens" to high ranking officials, taking a new name from their master. Thus Offred, the heroine of the opera (whose only "sin" was to marry a man who left his first wife) is handmaid to Commander Fred and his barren wife, Serena Joy.
The story is bleak and at times terrifying, as the hapless handmaidens are brain-washed by "aunts": disciplinarian figures who may dress like nuns but in whom all trace of kindness or mercy has been erased. Compliance with the new order is encouraged by the hanging of "criminals" and the handmaids themselves are forced to take part in the ritual killing of a "rapist". How Offred learns to cope with this brutal regime and the loss of her husband and five-year-old daughter - eventually escaping, but to an unknown fate - is the scope of the opera.
Poul Ruders was commissioned to write the opera by the Danish National Stage, which meant that it had to be sung in Danish. The result is therefore probably the first opera ever to be written in two languages. The production created by the Royal Danish Opera is superb, and although much of the detail of Atwood's story is necessarily lost in the compression to just over two hours, the essence - and its power to disturb - remains. The opening is stunning: videotape showing the "highlights" of the revolution and the birth of Gilead are handled superbly.
Sets are simple and effective. The indoctrination centre for the handmaids is a simple glass-walled chamber; behind this is an overshadowing red wall on which dangle the corpses of those hanged. The Commander's house is cleverly constructed with four rooms whose walls consist only of light strips on the floor, making all areas visible. Costumes are boldly colour-coded - scarlet habits and white winged headdresses for the handmaidens, bright green for the controlling aunts, blue for the "wives", destroying any possibility of individuality. This makes the flashbacks to the past - when Offred in her previous life is seen with husband Luke and their daughter - even more poignant.
The least effective aspect of the opera is, alas the music. While there are telling moments - the beautiful opening lines for Offred reminiscent of Britten's Turn of the Screw, the choruses for the handmaids reflecting plainsong, a sampling of Amazing Grace at a birth ceremony - it is too reliant on crashing and banging from the tympani and in general, is unmemorable. That's no crime, and it may grow in stature with familiarity, but what I can't forgive is that for a heavily language-dependent story, much of the music is too high for any words to be audible. Atwood is a wonderful wordsmith and it is all too apparent from the complete libretto provided with the programme that, powerful as this performance was, it would have been at least doubly so if we could have appreciated the irony of the words.
The one person whose diction coped was Stephanie Marshall, a young mezzo-soprano in her first season as a member of the ENO Jerwood Young Singers Programme. She is extraordinary as Offred: tremendous stage presence, sensitive acting and a very beautiful voice. Even when clothed in identical robes to all the other handmaidens, showing only her face, her expressions conveyed her innermost doubts and fears. Most definitely one to watch.
I've always been a fan of Helen Field but felt that in the role of Aunt Lydia she was not at her best - the pitch made her too shrill for my liking. Ethna Robinson as Rita, the maid and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the complacent Serena Joy made the most of their roles. The Commander himself was played by Stephen Richardson and he seemed to have the pitch problem in reverse: he lost power when the pitch strayed too low for his bass.
It's always exciting to go to an opera premiere and this one definitely has impact. Without the excellent production I'm not sure it would survive very long, but with it, there's no doubt it's worth seeing. Luckily the last sung lines go to Offred, so we hear them: "Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over to the hands of strangers. And so I step into the darkness or else the light." The same might be said of the opera as a whole. You'll probably get most out of it if you read the book beforehand, but that doesn't leave you a lot of time this season as there are only seven performances.