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Reviews

01 Apr 2019

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel - a world premiere at English National Opera

Jack the Ripper is as luridly fascinating today as he was over a century ago, so it was no doubt sensationalist of the marketing department of English National Opera to put the Victorian serial killer’s name first and the true subject of Iain Bell’s new opera - his victims, the women of Whitechapel - as something of an after-thought. Font size matters, especially if it’s to sell tickets.

Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel: a new opera by Iain Bell at ENO

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Susan Bullock and Lesley Garrett

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

 

Jack has made his way into opera before - in Berg’s Lulu and Phyllis Tate’s The Lodger but Bell and his librettist, Emma Jenkins, have decided to tell the story from the point of view of the women he murdered, and in doing so given us an opera with a strong moral bent - rather closer to social commentary. Opera it may have been - with Jenkins providing a beautifully poetic libretto, full of startling images which was often at odds with the poverty and bleakness of the staging. But it also felt as if it was a libretto which had been founded on the sociological writing of the great French academic Emile Durkheim.

Problems surface quite early in this opera, and it primarily has to do with Emma Jenkins' essay in the program which sets out her views on womanhood in Victorian London and what then actually happens in the opera. I found the two often to be inconsistent. There is no Gothic horror - principally because Jack the Ripper is a ghost, a presence only in name (or, is he?) - but what is so surprising is that you don’t need Jack because the women themselves are the perpetrators of their own violence. When Polly attempts to steal from the sleeping women (in bare coffins laid out like cradles) a fight breaks out - but it is Jenkins’s libretto, rather than the action on stage, which seems to tell the story more effectively. Threats to ‘break ragged teeth’ and a ‘raddled nose’ are brutal and matter-of-fact. Woken at 4am by Maud, the owner of the doss house, the women are sent out to sell their bodies - while Maud attends to the small matter of an abortion in a back-room. Maud’s ‘little parcel’ is the child Magpie, to be pimped out to a corrupt police commissioner (the real Sir Charles Warren would have been horrified by that indictment). But it’s the opera’s very lack of a protagonist in Jack the Ripper which shifts the balance between male oppression and violence to that of the women themselves which is the weakness here.

And that oddly is where the opera begins to crawl. The narrative of Jack’s murders are heard second-hand - either from the police telling us of them, or from the forensic evidence describing it. You never see blood on stage, but the libretto is so littered with the word ‘blood’ it might just as well be drenched and soaked in red letters. A corpse on a pathologist’s table is simply after the event (and why it’s charred I don’t know), and when the women are heading towards their gruesome fate they leave their carpet bags on a bare table, emptied out, as if they’re left-luggage. A broken, half-shattered mirror becomes a kind of talisman. Shadowy, top-hatted figures dressed in funereal black, like a Greek chorus, cart the dead women off - rather like undertakers. These scenes perhaps lack sophistication because they self-evidently work better in a medium other than opera; and the formulaic narrative of the pathologist’s inquest is a backbone which proved to have little spine.

Alan Opie © Alastair Muir.jpgAlan Opie. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

When the libretto shifts from what we know to be the coolness of fact to the women challenging their vulnerability the opera often became compelling. A problem with socialising the very subject matter of this work - in the sense of placing it in the very context of a wider cultural, economic and moral nexus - is that it often obscured the women at its centre. Give them moments of tenderness and power and suddenly they become much more human. Liz Stride’s monologue in Act II, for example, is defiant: she sings of refusing to be gutted, of being strung up and swilled empty like wine. You don’t entirely forget the image of the Hogarthian, gin-swilling women propped drunkenly against walls, under street lights, or slumped in street gutters - but it gives the impression of empowering women if, ultimately, they become victims to the implied male violence.

Daniel Kramer’s direction of this opera is hugely claustrophobic, and it’s almost suffocating to look at for long stretches. I think from what we know of Whitechapel from the late nineteenth century this is probably an accurate reflection - though the doss house feels rather more like a Dickensian work house from Little Dorrit. A lot is left to the imagination, which for some of us probably runs in opposing directions to what was intended. In a sense the imagination is all one has because Soutra Gilmour’s design is extraordinarily one-dimensional. It’s not so much stripped bare as completely gutted - the shallow dugouts the women sleep in more like graves - all that’s missing are the tombstones. The women watch an autopsy on the first of Jack’s victims behind a glass pane - disconnected, two worlds living within view of each other but emotionally from very different perspectives.

I found huge chunks of the opera - and the production generally - to derive much from operas elsewhere. Britten’s Peter Grimes hovers over The Women of Whitechapel like an unwelcome ghost. Squibby - mistaken for Jack the Ripper because of his blood-soaked apron - and falsely accused by a baying mob - ‘We want blood’ - comes straight out of Grimes; Bell’s violent, crushing music which comes to symbolise the Ripper’s murders owes much to the music in Britten’s opera and Maud is some monstrous hybrid borne out of Mrs Sedley and Strauss’s Clytemnestra. There is an interesting “Letter Scene” in Act II, a device that goes back to Offenbach and Mozart, but which here is sung as a duet, juxtaposing the letter of Jack the Ripper’s cannibalism, his ‘From Hell’ letter, and one being written to Queen Victoria pleading for her to do something about the slums and the condition of the women who live on the streets. The contrast between despair and hope couldn’t be more striking.

The casting of this production is absolutely first rate and redeems a production which splinters too often. It is, of course, dominated by women and it would be hard to imagine the roles of Jack’s victims - and that of the capricious Maud - being better sung. In a sense, these are roles which are ripe for some fleshing out - and mostly that is what we get. Janis Kelly’s Polly is strongly sung, but you detect just the right amount of grit in the voice as she is taken to her death. That perfect balance in the voice is self-evident in Marie McLaughlin’s Annie Chapman as well - taken too soon, perhaps. Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes) and Susan Bullock (Liz Stride) are magnificent in a comedy duet, swaggering, and loosened with flasks of gin, before being Jack the Ripper’s double-kill. Bullock is utterly memorable at the opening of Act II - reminiscing about her lover, a fireman, and wearing his helmet, she not only looks like an East End Brünnhilde but has the depth and range of voice to match. She can slump against a wall, soaked to the gills with booze, and still somehow muster the strength to sing of never being forced against the stable door against her will by Jack. The Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw is a dramatic and wonderfully rich-toned Mary Kelly - the projection absolutely razor-sharp. Perhaps of all the women Mary is the one with the most depth, and the one requiring a soprano most able to look within her soul. Romaniw brings a compassionate edge to her early scene where she reads of the Minotaur to her daughter - but her most memorable singing (at least from a technical point of view) is reserved for her final monologue at the end of the opera. One might argue - indeed, one probably should - that the scene delivered from a coffin on a hearse is simply prosaic and self-indulgent - but the quality of Romaniw’s singing was extraordinarily fine.

Dame Josephine Barstow.jpgDame Josephine Barstow. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

Josephine Barstow’s Maud is such an unlikeable figure - a depraved, vice-ridden woman without any sense of moral worth - that it requires a great singer to bring her off. She is as sinister as she is grotesque, a Victorian abortionist so soaked in blood she is like the regicidal Queen of Mycenae. Barstow’s voice has really lost none of its power at the top of the register - and she easily strode over of the orchestra, like a great albatross taking flight, in the final scene - and no matter how purely disgusting the role may have been hers was an impressive achievement. If the voice feels just a little compressed in the middle, the power behind it remains formidable. By contrast, the much smaller male roles are almost the very definition of compassion - there is a slightly perverse quality to James Cleverton’s Photographer, a voyeur into exploitation undoubtedly, but it’s a role that’s defined by a confusion of facts: what seems to be an acknowledgement of guilt in photographs modelled on the Ripper’s violence is actually the reverse, whereas Alex Otterburn’s beautifully sung and gently characterised Squibby is harassed and attacked and implicated in the murders because his apron is covered in blood when the opposite is the case.

The choruses are excellent - the male chorus as onlookers peering into the doss house, or with hands sliding through opened slats as if to grasp at female body parts in a kind of anonymous sexual fumbling. The fact they look identical is perhaps a mistake if you are looking to suggest all men treat women this way; on the other hand, one could equally look at this chorus as the very definition of Jack the Ripper himself in that it was this very anonymity which made him the unidentified killer he was. He was everyman, and no man. The female chorus are the Victorian women who are the title of the opera - whether known because they were victims of Jack the Ripper or victims because they weren’t. The ENO Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins give an extraordinarily assured performance of a score which if not exactly challenging on the ear, isn’t objectionable either.

The Women of Whitechapel is an opera that can seem heavy on morality - no more so than at the end which I found grating. It concludes as you might a fable - though Jenkins really looks through frosted glass to see solutions to problems that the opera only half confronts. The cast go far - and beyond - to such an extent that I imagine any revival, or future production, of this opera will be difficult to stage with different singers. It’s certainly flawed as an opera, but the conviction of all involved made it an artistic, and musical, achievement of a very high order.

Marc Bridle

Mary Kelly - Natalya Romaniw, Maud - Josephine Barstow, Polly Nichols -Janis Kelly, Annie Chapman - Marie McLaughlin, Elizabeth Stride - Susan Bullock, Catherine Eddowes - Lesley Garrett, Squibby - Alex Otterburn, The Pathologist - Alan Opie, Commissioner of Police - Robert Hayward, The Photographer - James Cleverton, Sergeant Johnny Strong - Nicky Spence, The Writer - William Morgan; Director - Daniel Kramer, Conductor - Martyn Brabbins, Designer - Soutra Gilmour, Lighting Designer - Paul Anderson, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London; 30th March 2019.

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