The dark, dank streets and tenements of London’s notorious borough of Whitechapel in 1888 are powerfully captured by English National Opera’s production of Jack the Ripper. Composer Iain Bell has created a rich and sumptuous score with a Romantic flavour in the pulsating strings and the inclusion at crucial moments of a hammer-struck zither or psaltery which eerily evokes the tinny tone of a piano in an East End pub as well as the exotic air of some dangerous grey East European capital.
The opera is subtitled The Women of Whitechapel and the story is told from the victims’ point of view. Five senior sopranos portray the murdered women. Janis Kelly sings Polly Nichols, arrested for vagrancy and sent to the workhouse with its coffin-like beds in an atmospheric set designed by Soutra Gilmour. With pathetic regret she sings ‘I had a man before’, a sombre aria with chorus of fellow outcasts from society’s jaundiced opinion of single women. Marie McLaughlin sings with music hall joviality the popular Annie Chapman whose death brings the persecuted sorority together behind the etched glass of a Victorian boozer alleviating their misery in Bell’s ironic take on the rumbustious drinking song. A sinister chorus of top-hatted, moustachioed tenors and basses appear from the shadows of the wings soliciting their quarry at the bar.
Drunkenly, the Wagnerian Susan Bullock takes the stage at the start of the second half as Elizabeth Stride, the third victim. ‘God I love a fireman – hands like warming pans’, she lyrically drools in Emma Jenkins’ beautifully written tragic-comic libretto. Tragedy and comedy were neighbours at the time with the disembowellings carried out in the shadow of the music halls. The production highlight is the duet Bullock then sings with Lesley Garrett’s fourth victim Catherine Eddowes arriving from a delightful scene with a suspiciously pervy photographer, creepily sung by James Cleverton. The Bullock-Garrett duet stands for the so-called ‘double event’, the murder of two women in the space of an hour. The second occurred within the precincts of the City – cue establishment panic – and there are fine performances by Nicky Spence as the bungling bobby and William Morgan as the Writer as police and press take serious note for the first time.
A protracted and surreal ending is unnecessary and spoils the opera’s impact. A man is killed by a stampeding crowd in a scene with no basis in truth and we are invited jarringly to sympathise with a dying male in a plot about misogyny. Natalya Romaniw sings the final victim Mary Kelly standing in her coffin draped in the white of innocence, achieving apotheosis in her soaring angelic soprano. A heavy hand guides the final pages. This is a shame because the work as a whole provides a gripping evening of tension and suspense relieved by comic interludes and a wonderfully lyrical score. The performance here benefits from five of the nation’s finest sopranos, women of international standing singing for the loss of five others who were never so lucky.