Jack the Ripper’s frenzied killing spree in Victorian London has never ceased to fascinate and appall.
Iain Bell, composer of the ambitious new opera of the same name, and his librettist Emma Jenkins, decided, when creating their new work, to rid the stage of his presence altogether and to focus instead on the Ripper’s female victims, the women of Whitechapel.
In the opera Jack exists merely in song, most memorably in the scene with the Pathologist, when Ripper’s grisly acts are revealed in minute detail.
The curtain rose on a doss house, resembling both prison and morgue, with its macabre drawers and recesses. The higher drawers slid back and out popped a row of heads belonging to Victorian undertakers in top hats, like clients at a peep show.
Surreal yes! This strange scene also reflects the reality of doss houses at that time which not only attracted prostitution but also provided strange bedding arrangements. Ropes were on offer for tuppence a time, for those prepared to flop over them and sleep standing up. Coffin beds were the upgrade for a few pennies more.
What we see on stage are not coffins however but open graves, from which the female occupants rise, like the dead in Stanley Spencer’s famous painting, ‘The Resurrection’.
The stage was so starkly lit that at first we were unable to distinguish the main female protagonists hiding in shadow. Nor could we see who was singing!
The interval was the time to check the cast list so as to make quite sure that we were seeing who we thought we were seeing!
No doubt this was a ploy to show the anonymity of women living in the sprawling slum. In the 1880’s Whitechapel, one-in-four women were obliged to take to the streets when money was short.
I had recognised Natalya Romaniw playing the part of Mary, daughter of Maud, the doss-house proprietress. Romaniw, I am delighted to say, fully embraced her character. Her acting was assured in this opera and her voice – well what a voice it is. Mournful, pitch-perfect, the sort of voice which astounds and moves at once.
Romaniw was really convincing in the role of anxious mother trying to protect her daughter, Magpie, from prostitution.
Natalya Romaniw Ashirah Foster Notice.
It helped too that Romaniw’s stage mother, Maud, was Dame Josephine Barlow, who disturbs in her evil, matriarchal role. (Think Flora Robson in Wuthering Heights with the strict hair bun, wiry figure in black with her cold, dead stare).
Maud reminds us throughout the opera that she was raped aged eight, (‘the rasp of carpet under my cheek … it is with me always’). Hopelessly damaged, she can only think about herself, her suffering, her pain!
The confrontational scenes with Romaniw and Barstow were tense, exciting and marvellously dramatic.
But all ‘six little trollops’ (their words not mine) were played convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Liz Stride’s comic character, sung by Susan Bullock. She was a humorous drunk as she belted out, ‘God, I love a fireman!’
An interesting, and for me, essential part of this opera, was its portrayal of men, who are not all hypocritical, sexual predators. Some are vulnerable.
Nor are all women victims. Maud is the ultimate female abuser. It is she who procures young flesh for the Victorian establishment and who wants her granddaughter to enter the profession so that she can earn her way.
Sometimes the abuser-victim lines were blurred. ’Don’t touch me,’ sang a furious male photographer, who produced erotica, when Catherine, his model (played by Leslie Garrett) tried to seduce him. But he is far from squeaky clean since he provides gory pictures of naked victims to Victorian gentlemen.
Details like this prevented the opera from being overly simplistic in its conclusions and I applaud Iain Bell for that.
It is true that anonymous black-suited men did regularly flood the stage like locusts feeding on their female prey.
Two male outsiders come across as sympathetic to women. Squibby feeds the starving girls with scraps of meat he has put aside in the slaughter house he works in. He does have a motive meanwhile; he is passionately in love with Mary.
The Writer meanwhile is a young, social reformer who has ended up lodging at the doss-house. He pens a letter to Queen Victoria to alert her to the misery of Whitechapel and its women and also undertakes to educate Magpie, Mary’s daughter.
Sadly both men are not rewarded for their troubles.
Alex Otterburn (Squibby) was particularly touching in the scenes in which he played with Mary’s daughter, Magpie.
As for the music itself, it is always difficult to review new music, especially opera. It warrants hearing many times over before it sinks in. All I can say is that Ian Bell’s stark composition really evoked the horrors of the slum. At times, the evil, death march sounds and pace seemed almost too much. Sensibly Bell had added humour and pathos to the mix.
Emma Jenkins’s libretto improved as the opera progressed. At first, there was a little too much telling of what was evident. The libretto firmed up, phrases of suffering were repeated over and over, adding urgency and tension to the piece.
There were moments of beauty and reflection as when Lesley Garrett and Janis Kelly sing a melody full of nostalgic longing: ‘I had a man before… I had a life before,’ with the chorus.
Bell and Jenkins must have felt blessed to have such a stellar cast of sopranos to work with. Indeed all the singers and chorus were excellent – not one bad apple among them!
My most vivid memory of the evening was the drinking song, performed in the friendly Britannia Pub. Its amber-lit, stained-glass window of art and crafts design was a beacon of warmth in an otherwise living hell.
In stark contrast, the final scene was visually chilling with its horizon of top hats and Victorian matriarch with black plume rearing up like the Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky’s opera.
Dame Josephine Barstow (centre) with chorus
All in all a fascinating multi-layered work and a rare opportunity to see six famous sopranos sing under one roof!
Jack The Ripper. The Women of Whitechapel is on for a further 5 performances. 03,05,08, 10 and 12 April at 7.30pm
500 tickets for £20 are available for each performance.