Monday, 1 April 2019

Unrelenting darkness and miasma in the East End labyrinth: premiere of Jack the Ripper at ENO

Iain Bell: Jack the Ripper - The Women of Whitehall - Janis Kelly, Lesley Garrett, Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Marie McLaughlin - English National Opera (Photo Alastair Muir)
Iain Bell: Jack the Ripper - The Women of Whitehall - Janis Kelly, Lesley Garrett, Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Marie McLaughlin - English National Opera (Photo Alastair Muir)
Iain Bell Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel; Natalya Romaniw, Josephine Barstow, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett, dir Daniel Kramer, cond; Martyn Brabbins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum  
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 30 March 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
With a cast that has many decades’ work at ENO between them, Iain Bell's powerful new opera is dark and unsettling

The premiere of Iain Bell's Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, libretto Emma Jenkins, by English National Opera (ENO) at the London Coliseum on Saturday 30 March 2019, directed by Daniel Kramer, conducted by Martyn Brabbins with a cast including Josephine Barstow, Natalya Romaniw, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett, Alan Opie, Robert Hayward, Nicky Spence, and James Cleverton.

This was the world première of Iain Bell’s opera – his first for ENO and the latest in a series on themes from British history (his previous three being A Harlot’s Progress based on Hogarth paintings, A Christmas Carol, based on Dickens and In Parenthesis based on David Jones' First World War poem, see Robert's review).

The opera is an exploration of the lives of the women who use a particular Whitechapel doss house in the 1880s, but there is (mercifully) no sight of the serial killer ‘Jack’. The backdrop of toxic masculinity of the time and the location is ever present, and so often we hear in the text a timelessness that makes it quite clear this is not a problem confined to the Victorian East End. Librettist Emma Jenkins calls this a ‘reimagining’ of the lives of women who, through poverty, addiction and abuse are left with few choices.

Soutra Gilmour’s excellent set is a black square with various walls flown in for various claustrophic and murky interiors and external scenes: particularly sickening was a wall of windows with top-hatted Victorian men leering through like a Victorian peep show. Paul Anderson’s lighting gave us interminable murkiness and fog; the scenes in the morgue were dark except for a bright white light on a black corpse. Even the blood was black.

Iain Bell: Jack the Ripper - The Women of Whitehall - Josephine Barstow - English National Opera (Photo Alastair Muir)
Iain Bell: Jack the Ripper - The Women of Whitehall - Josephine Barstow - English National Opera (Photo Alastair Muir)
The principals have many decades’ work at ENO between them: the doss house madam, Maud, is Josephine Barstow who played Salome there in the 1970s.
The five ‘victims’ have associations with ENO going back to the 80s: Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett and newcomer Natalya Romaniw. – all sopranos. They made for a powerful – and powerfully differentiated – team, giving us some terrific singing and an object lesson in how to get text across in the Coli. Likewise Alan Opie, 50 years since his ENO début.

The score is huge – and hugely varied. Iain Bell writes brilliantly for his singers and the wonderful ENO orchestra. There are some moments of comic relief, where the women momentarily take control of their desperate situation: Liz impersonates a fireman (though this constitutes a breach of the peace); she and Catherine make a fast bob or two out of the Photographer (though they also see autopsy photos and pornography at the same studio).

Solidarity comes from a fantasy that men are to be outwitted, but the success of those who manage it is extremely short-lived and precarious. They sing “In the doss house we are safe”, yet with the aforementioned top-hatted ‘gentlemen’ at the window they are not safe for long. They are “one man away from hunger”. By 4am the night is over. It is a no-go area for the police after midnight, though the disgusting Commissioner seems prepared to go in there in search of a ‘fresh parcel’, who happens to be Mary’s young daughter, Magpie.

The fact that the theme is not new is reflected in the many references to the ‘canon’. A big ensemble echoes the Peter Grimes quartet of Auntie, Mrs Sedley and the Nieces. The Labyrinth, found in so much operatic repertoire, is used as a children’s story told by Mary to her daughter, and Goethe’s tragic Mignon has her lines sung at the end: “None but the lonely heart can know my sadness”.

Iain Bell: Jack the Ripper - The Women of Whitehall - English National Opera (Photo Alastair Muir)
Iain Bell: Jack the Ripper - The Women of Whitehall - English National Opera (Photo Alastair Muir)
All this makes for an uncomfortable and unsettling evening; we are fully aware that exploitation of the poor and vulnerable is still rife, or indeed on the increase. It could have been a little shorter, to be honest, and the darkness felt unending. But then again, for the poor, the abused, the enslaved to be given their own voice, while the sick killer is not given any airtime, it is vitally important to sit through this – and you will need to make time to reflect on it all the next day.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel
Opera in two acts by Iain Bell
Libretto: Emma Jenkins

Conductor: Martyn Brabbins
Director: Daniel Kramer
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson

Mary Kelly: Natalya Romaniw
Maud: Josephine Barstow
Polly Nichols: Janis Kelly
Annie Chapman: Marie McLaughlin
Liz Stride: Susan Bullock
Catherine Eddowes: Lesley Garrett
The Writer: William Morgan
Squibby: Alex Otterburn
The Pathologist: Alan Opie
Commissioner of Police: Robert Hayward
Sergeant Johnny Strong: Nicky Spence
The Photographer: James Cleverton
The Coroner: Paul Sheehan
Man in crow: Michael Burke
Magpie: Ashirah Foster Notice

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • From newspaper article to opera: our journey creating our new opera The Gardeners  - feature article
  • Keeping it fresh: conductor David Hill on the challenges of performing Bach's St Matthew Passion annually with the Bach Choir - interview
  • Period charm & fizzing performance: Messager's Les p'tites Michu from Palazzetto Bru Zane  (★★★★) - Cd review
  • A remarkable work of reconstruction: Opera Rara's world premiere recording of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida (★★★★) - CD review
  • Iestyn Davies & the viol consort Fretwork in Michael Nyman & Henry Purcell at Temple Church (★★★★) - concert review 
  • Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics (★★★½) - CD review
  • The road not taken: Boito's Mefistofele makes a rare London appearance with Chelsea Opera Group in terrific form (★★★★½)  - opera review
  • Late romantic journeys: opera by Ravel & Tchaikovsky in a highly satisfying double bill from Royal Academy Opera  - opera review
  • 18th & 21st century premieres: Pianist Clare Hammond on the music of Josef Myslivecek and Kenneth Hesketh - interview
  • The French 20th century saxophone: Tableaux de Provence from Dominic Childs & Simon Callaghan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Man, myth and magic: how story telling has come back into opera  - feature
  • Into the harem and beyond: the richness & exoticism of the music of Fazil Say (★★★★) - CD review
  • Thrilling dynamism: Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas on Signum (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month