Look at London and you might believe Jack the Ripper was fictional. Raucous tours, museums and even a barber shop are named after him. Tourist brochures tout him as something of a legend, attempting to ruthlessly cash in on our voracious appetite for the macabre. In reality, though, Jack the Ripper was very real. This is the man who notoriously mutilated women and was never caught – hence, perhaps, why there's still such a fascination with him.
The ENO’s new opera, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, aims to shift the focus back to those victims and away from the grisly intrigue of their murders and murderer.
The trouble is that the women at its core are almost as unknown as their killer. And despite the best efforts of dazzling star Natalya Romaniw – whose crescendo at the end is a glimpse of the kind of vengeful righteousness the opera could have embodied – they stay almost as unfamiliar as they were at the beginning.
It would be wrong to say that Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel lacks any real engaging narrative thread, because its creators appear to have intentionally eschewed one. Instead, the opera feels more like a series of hastily assembled vignettes.
Some of those moments are entertaining, such as when the action opens up into bawdy songs in the pub that actually add some light and humour to a miserable scene, or a set-piece built around an autopsy that manages to critique the lurid interest of the press in the murders as well as the complete indifference to the circumstances that let them happen. Others fall flat, such as scenes that attempt to force a love interest and a crusading journalist into the mix.
But that would be fine, in itself. The real issue is that there is little to link those small pieces together or too propel an audience through nearly three hours. It has neither the factual interest of documentary nor the compelling narrative of storytelling; it feels more like a first draft or notes found in a scrapbook.
There would be something wrong in assembling these women’s experiences in stories: they have been treated only ever as mechanical parts in a narrative that is not their own.
Likewise, to offer the traditional solace of an ending would be an injustice to the lives and deaths it chronicles – the poverty and disregard that allowed these women to die in the shadows might have alleviated, but it certainly hasn’t ended. What’s more, these are women defined only by their ends, and by the way those ends were forced upon them; if art can do anything for the women of Whitechapel then it is surely to give them their beginnings and middles. Composer Iain Bell and librettist Emma Jenkins achieve this, but opera does need to end somewhere – and without a satisfying conclusion, this work feels unfinished.
Jack the Ripper will continue to haunt London, whether it is on walking tours or more sober settings like this. And he will do so for the unseemly reason that his legacy contains the flavour of great storytelling: mystery, and brutal gore at enough of a distance as to be used in entertainment.
It means Bell starts with harder work to do. Instead of mystery, he has misery; the production goes for the gothic instead of gore, since the kind of easy, bloody scares that make the Ripper story so dangerously enchanting can hardly be used here.
But unfortunately the morbid entertainment that Jack the Ripper has become looms over this work, too. A work that aims to elevate these women out of their misery, and out of the Jack the Ripper industry that followed it, would need to be very great indeed. The Women of Whitechapel misses this mark. A crucial intervention and an ambitious and accomplished piece of work this may be, but not one up to the scale of the challenge.
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