The Handmaid's Tale, Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London

With a born-again president in the White House, The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's dystopian fable of a near-future US transformed into the republic of Gilead and run by religious zealots who are against abortion and in favour of capital punishment seems less far-fetched now than it did when it appeared in 1985. The opera that Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley have fashioned out of Atwood's novel was commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera and first seen in Copenhagen three years ago. The production by Phyllida Lloyd was shared with English National Opera and comes to the Coliseum for the British premiere, sung in the English of Bentley's text for the first time.

It is easy to see why Ruders was so determined to make an opera out of the tale of Offred, the "handmaid" forcibly taken from her husband and child to be trained as a surrogate mother for the household of one of Gilead's high-ranking officials. The story unfolds through a series of highly charged confrontations that are "operatic" in their intensity and, like the novel, Bentley's libretto flicks between past and present.

But Ruders' score lacks a distinctive flavour, veering between idioms and underpinning characterless vocal lines with overloaded and overheated orchestral writing that resorts too often to quotation (Amazing Grace, and Bach's Bist du bei mir are heavily exploited). The choral writing is sometimes uncomfortably close to Carmina Burana, the Bernstein-esque treatment of Offred's family life is trite, while her duet with her later self is sentimental indulgence. The high tessitura of many of the female vocal lines make much of the text indecipherable: hardly a word of Aunt Lydia, in charge of the training of the handmaids, gets across, despite Helen Field's efforts.

The lack of words makes the narrative difficult to follow. The programme book is little help, and though Lloyd's staging has its plusses - sharply colour-coded designs and costumes by Peter McKintosh, and telling use of video - its clutter and constant scene changes add to the confusion. The performances, though, are wonderfully committed. Stephanie Marshall is outstanding as the post- revolution Offred, as supple in voice as she is in body; Stephen Richardson sinisterly dark as the commander, Catherine Wyn-Rogers wonderfully hypocritical as his wife Serena Joy. The orchestral playing under Elgar Howarth is secure. ENO has done Ruders proud; what Ruders has done for Atwood, however, is far less certain.

· In rep until May 2. Box office: 020-7632 8300.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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