ENO’s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel Gets Lost in the Whitechapel Maze

05/04/2019

Iain Bell, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 3.4.2019. (JPr)

‘The Women of Whitechapel’ – (l-r) Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Natalya Romaniw,
Susan Bullock and Lesley Garrett (c) Alistair Muir

Production:

Director- Daniel Kramer
Designer – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer – Paul Anderson

Cast:

Mary Kelly – Natalya Romaniw
Maud – Josephine Barstow
Polly Nichols – Janis Kelly
Annie Chapman – Marie McLaughlin
Elizabeth (Liz) Stride – Susan Bullock
Catherine Eddowes – Lesley Garrett
The Writer – William Morgan
Squibby – Alex Otterburn
The Pathologist – Alan Opie
Commissioner of Police – Robert Hayward
Sergeant Johnny Strong – Nicky Spence
The Photographer – James Cleverton
The Coroner – Paul Sheehan
Man in Crowd – Michael Burke
Magpie – Sophia Elton

After 130 years many remain fascinated by the serial killer who killed five women between August and November 1888 and was never caught. Coincidentally, at primetime on 4 April on BBC One Silent Witness star Emilia Fox was hosting a new investigation Jack the Ripper: The Case Reopened. Librettist Emma Jenkins suggested in the programme how her collaboration with composer Iain Bell on Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel shifts the focus to the victims and ‘attempts to reimagine their story. We were never interested in a whodunit or a police procedural. Instead we wanted to explore the lives of the women and how they and those in their community must have felt as they gradually realised that they were being hunted like prey.’ Later she adds how ‘This is the women’s story and not just the story of the canonical five, as the victims have become known, but also the story of all women who were forced to live upon the streets of Whitechapel at a time when London was being referred to as “the abyss” or “the labyrinth” by writers of the period, so engorged was it on its own corruption.’ (One of these was W.T. Stead, a journalist and social reformer, who appears in the opera as ‘The Writer’.) Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel opens with Mary Kelly reading the story of Theseus and the Minotaur to her daughter Magpie (the young Sophia Elton in a silent role) and we are to see this as a parallel to the horrors about to unfold in the maze of overcrowded streets that was Whitechapel in the 1880s. Throughout sinister top hatted men in black will be seen circling their prey,

Most significantly was what Bell wrote in March 2019’s Opera magazine (London Calling) about how many people seem to have had an input into this new work. This recalls the maxim ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’ and I wonder how many opera composers in the past have asked for notes from all and sundry. What we now get – lasting nearly three hours with just a single interval – can be summed up by a comment I overheard: ‘It just needs a plot otherwise it’s got quite a lot going for it.’! That this is proving a hard sell for English National Opera can be seen by their emphasising ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the title despite him (probably) never being shown on stage and downsizing ‘The Women of Whitechapel’. Even this is not filling the London Coliseum and around me in the stalls it was obvious how some people never returned after the interval. Although this opera is a co-production and co-commission with Opera North it is difficult to imagine it will have a life after this short run of performances.

Soutra Gilmour’s dingy dosshouse setting with its coffin beds provides some haunting imagery and this is probably ENO’s artistic director Daniel Kramer’s best work of his short tenure. He doesn’t really get much to work with and just has to move the characters around the set to stand and sing or allow the chorus their anthemic renditions – such as the Act I closer ‘Jack the Ripper’ – that are familiar from any number of West End musicals. It all starts promisingly with the entry of Polly Nichols (Janis Kelly) into the dosshouse to come into conflict with Mary Kelly (Natalya Romaniw) who is living there and trying to keep her daughter from the life in prostitution that has snared her and her friends. However, Maud – the venal dosshouse overseer (as well as, go-to abortionist) – is keen to sell Magpie as a ‘fresh parcel’ to the highest bidder who in this case happens to be the Commissioner of Police! Before the stylised murders start punctuating events, the camaraderie and sisterhood of these forgotten souls has much to commend it without anything being at all memorable.

Soon it becomes clear that the cast of veterans are mainly there to bask in their moment back in the spotlight. Susan Bullock and Lesley Garrett provide ‘comic relief’ as Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes but the changes of tone are clunky and often downright inappropriate as when Bullock opens Act II with ‘God, I love a Fireman’ and Garrett has an encounter with James Cleverton’s creepy Photographer. Indeed this conclusion to Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel becomes increasingly voyeuristic beginning with a courtroom scene and the mob violence against Squibby (who is in unrequited love with Mary) that owes a lot (too much?) to Peter Grimes. Alan Opie’s Pathologist recounts the lurid details of the ‘double event’ killing of Stride and Eddowes and although Jenkins and Bell clearly take pride in no blood being shown on stage they smear it over the horrors now imprinted on listeners’ mind. The Writer tries to save Magpie from a paedophile ring and gets arrested himself for his pains. When Maggie flees with her daughter it is with the realisation that – as Jenkins’s synopsis says – ‘everyone she has ever loved or trusted has been taken from her’. Death catches up with Mary and during an apotheosis she recounts – as a spectre at her own funeral – the words of her headstone ‘None but the lonely hearts can know my sadness’. What an ending this might have been had not the work meander on for no real reason than to give Romaniw’s Mary a Liebestod-moment at the end of the opera; holding the audience back from their rush for the exits that happened as soon it all finally ended.

The cast is full of names (including Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett, Janis Kelly, and Marie McLaughlin) who were so important to some wonderful opera evenings in the final decades of the twentieth century particularly. Age is only a number so let’s not worry how old anyone was, but just celebrate the continuing artistry of all concerned and commend them for doing the best they could with what they were given. The collaborative nature of the composition of Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel meant nearly all of the principal cast got their ‘party piece’. There were standout performances from Josephine Barstow as the hard-hearted Maud and Alan Opie was the Pathologist who relished divulging the details of Eddowes’s murder. Barstow’s high notes are still a thing of wonder and Opie’s baritone remains suavely cultured. Natalya Romaniw is a rising star of this generation and she brought her maternal and compassionate Mary to as much life as Jenkins and Bell allowed the character. Nicky Spence is clearly one of the best of ENO’s current roster of tenors and was a little wasted in a relatively minor role of Sergeant Johnny Strong and I hope to hear him in a leading Wagner role sooner rather than later. There were equally impressive performances from William Morgan’s sympathetic Writer and Alex Otterburn’s lovelorn Squibby. How wonderful it was to hear Robert Hayward as the stern and unyielding Commissioner, and I remember him auditioning for – and winning – The Wagner Society’s Bayreuth Bursary longer ago than either of us would probably care to remember!

Laudably Jenkins’s libretto has its basis in the facts of the events and conditions pertaining at the time they occurred, however what we see is dramatically inert and cries out to be edited down into an oratorio-like piece with a more manageable running time. Bell’s spare score regularly employs a cimbalom to create a musical miasma which give many scenes the appropriate atmosphere and there are – at pivotal moments – some slashing Bernard Hermann-like chords. Mostly however it is just a patchwork of eclectic themes and ideas, though the orchestra plays very well, and it is all carefully crafted by ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins.

Emilia Fox’s new documentary said nothing new about the events in London during 1888 and sadly neither did this new opera allow ‘The Women of Whitechapel’ to be more than the cyphers they have always been.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is on at ENO click here.

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