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Music & the Arts

Iain Bell’s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel at ENO

Guest review: Tom Luce on the world premiere of Iain Bell‘s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel at English National Opera (performances of 5 and 8 April 2019):

Last month saw the world premiere at London’s English National Opera of Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel by British composer Iain Bell with a libretto by Emma Jenkins.

The late-19th-century serial killing of prostitutes in London’s poverty-stricken Whitechapel district is a gruesome but legendary “cold crime” that still engages crime historians.

It even made it into opera when Alban Berg portrayed Jack the Ripper as the murderer of Lulu when she took to prostitution in London (“Das war ein Stück Arbeit”).

The new opera by Bell and Jenkins concentrates not on the criminal, who does not appear in it, but on his victims. A doss house — British slang for a refuge for the homeless — is the main scene. It is peopled largely by women forced by poverty into sex work including the murderer’s five victims. Maud, the doss house manager portrayed with force by the veteran Josephine Barstow, symbolises the intergenerational transmission of degradation. Sold as a sex object at age seven, she ends as an abortionist and a procuress of women and under-age girls to London’s elite including the local police chief. Her daughter Mary Kelly, played with huge dramatic conviction and vocal strength by Natalya Romaniw, does sex work but has longings for a proper family life centred on the upbringing of her own little girl Magpie.

The roles of other victims were vividly taken by Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Susan Bullock, and Lesley Garrett. It is a feature of the opera that the female characters are all differentiated and individualistic while the males are mostly stereotypical symbols of class and gender oppression — the Police Chief, the pathologist who examines the bodies of the murdered victims, and the burly police sergeant who tries to keep order on the front line of this divided and fractious society. These parts were convincingly portrayed by Robert Hayward, Alan Opie, and Nicky Spence, respectively. An exception to the stereotyping is a radical investigative writer, played effectively by William Morgan, who researches the whole scene for evidence of the need for social and political reform.

Like Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the new opera contains an inquest scene. In both works, the coroner has some difficulty in maintaining order in his court because the local people use the process as an opportunity to express their fear and anger at the goings-on in their communities.

On the musical side, it is possible to perceive another link with Britten’s work. One of its most moving moments is the quartet “From the Gutter” for the four women characters, who lament the lack of respect for their roles. Without being in any sense derivative, the new opera can be seen as an extended opera-length elaboration of the empathy towards women expressed by Britten. The expressive score was well realised by the English National Opera orchestra under their music director Martyn Brabbins. The production by Daniel Kramer was vivid and powerful.

In its opening moments, The Women of Whitechapel shows Mary Kelly teaching her daughter Magpie to read, which clearly symbolises a determination to provide the young girl with hope of a better life. A key conflict in the opera is the mother’s successful effort to prevent the girl’s procuress grandmother delivering her as a child prostitute to the police chief. In its closing moments, we see the silent role of Magpie — played with touching charm alternatively by Ashirah Notice and Sophia Elton in the two performances I saw — scuttling across the stage away from the scenes of death and squalor with which the opera is largely concerned. So the ending offers an ambiguous note of hope that the cycle of transmitted degradation might be losing force.

This was the first of two premieres of operas by Iain Bell this year. It promises well for the second — Stonewall –which is to be introduced in June by New York City Opera.
Review by Tom Luce

Filed under: English National Opera, new opera

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