Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, by Iain Bell.
World premiere at the English National Opera in April 2019.
Set in a doss house with women relying on prostitution to survive, Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel is certainly a grim opera. Dark and dramatic with a gothic approach rather than gory (although the horrific details are in the libretto), the opera reveals the destitution and hardships in the slums of East London in 1888.
The first act introduces us to the plight of the women with the focus being on Mary Kelly, the last of the known victims, played superbly by Natalya Romaniw. She is trying to educate her daughter, Magpie, so that she can escape the world of traffickers and child prostitution. In charge of the doss house is the formidable Maud, played by Dame Josephine Barstow, who acts as a pimp and abortionist. The other women are sung by a stellar cast – Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Susan Bullock and Lesley Garrett – ENO’s Golden Girls. Apart from a communal singalong in Whitechapel’s Brittania pub, the opera’s first act provides few moments of light relief.
The monochrome set designed by Soutra Gilmour is used to full effect and creates an oppressive atmosphere. There are coffins set in the floor for sleeping, endless doors and a dim street lamp. The windows of light that open and break through the gloom feel horribly voyeuristic. The men were dressed completely in black with top hats and added to the predatory atmosphere.
The second act has more variety in mood and dramatic pace and feature scenes inside a photographer’s studio, a courtroom as well as the doss house. There is pathos with ill-fated love and injustice when a journalist trying to help the women and stop the sale of Magpie is framed by Maud. This act also lasts for 75 minutes making the opera just under three hours long.
Iain Bell’s music was eerie, sometimes subdued and often menacing with sustained tension in the harmonies and with a clever use of the cymbalom throughout. It was the solo and chamber writing that impressed with notable violin and viola solos. The Forgiveness Quintet in the Britannia Pub was particularly poignant when the women sing ‘I forgive you as you are, and for what you have been to me’. The orchestra was excellent under the direction of Martyn Brabbins and the singing exuded terror and anguish. Bell had composed the music to suit each individual singer, which showcased their vocal strengths. The men’s voices, including Alan Opie (the Pathologist) and Robert Hayward (the Commissioner of Police) and the ENO chorus were superb and created an all-consuming body of sound.
Librettist, Emma Jenkins, wanted the opera to be the story not just of the five victims, but of the community of destitute women who lived in the Whitechapel slums. She drew upon the words engraved upon the headstone of the final victim Mary Kelly, to sum up the experience of these women and sadly by many today:
None but the lonely hearts can know my sadness.
Image credits: ©Alastair Muir
Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, until 12 April; London Coliseum eno.org