Michael White’s classical news: The Handmaid’s Tale; Matthew Passion

Thursday, 7th April — By Michael White

ENO The Handmaid's Tale 2003

The Handmaid’s Tale returns to the ENO

MARGARET Attwood’s grim myth of dystopian times, The Handmaid’s Tale, was an uncomfortable read as a novel and none too easy to watch as a TV series. But I have especially harrowing memories of it as an opera – set to music back in the late 1990s by Danish composer Poul Ruders and staged in 2003 at English National Opera with bodies swaying ominously at the end of ropes by way of décor.

This week it returns to ENO, though in a new production by the company’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon which may or may not give you hanging bodies. But whatever you see, it will still be an unnerving show, because Ruders and his librettist did a thorough job of turning the story into song – so effectively that the piece remains one of the best-regarded operas of its time.

ENO’s new staging has been accident prone, losing its first two performances due to rehearsal issues. So the number of opportunities to see is now reduced down to April 8, 10, 12 and 14. But it’s something to make an effort for – not least because there are some fine voices in the cast, including Emma Bell as the awful Aunt Lydia. Be very scared. www.eno.org

Horrors of a different kind dominate the musical agenda this week as Easter arrives, bringing with it no shortage of retellings of the biblical Passion narrative, as set with heart-rending anguish by JS Bach. April 10 is the traditional, and usually rather grand, performance at the Festival Hall of the Matthew Passion by the Bach Choir who don’t hurry over it, starting at 11am with a two-hour lunch break for reflection! David Hill conducts, with good soloists like Roderick Williams and Toby Spence. southbankcentre.co.uk

There’s another, sleeker and no doubt faster Matthew Passion at Wigmore Hall on April 12, done by the Dunedin Consort. wigmore-hall.org.uk

Then there are St John Passions at Westminster Abbey done by the choir of Westminster Abbey under James O’Donnell, April 12 (tickets via the St John’s Smith Square website: sjss.org.uk); and by the Hanover Band at Kings Place, April 13 (kingsplace.co.uk).

But my vote overall would be for the one on Good Friday, April 15, given by the ever-wonderful Polyphony as part of the St John’s Smith Square Easter Festival. This festival is always one of the highlights of the Smith Square year – battered of late by Covid but back in business for 2022, with a strong programme that starts with Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil on April 10 (and don’t worry, it doesn’t actually last all night: you can still get to bed, ready for work the next day). April 12 has the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, Maundy Thursday the Arvo Pärt Stabat Mater. And at 10pm on Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday there are liturgical recreations of the traditional Tenebrae rites (remembering that Smith Square is still a consecrated church), which you can attend in person or online. It’s all magnificent repertoire that has a powerful presence whether you believe or not. Full details: sjss.org.uk

• More locally, if you’re missing a Messiah, the Royal Free Music Society has one at St Mary’s Primrose Hill, 7pm, April 9. Tickets on the door.

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