The notorious serial-killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate, with countless books, films, documentaries, tours and websites catering to a seemingly insatiable desire to gaze at human behaviour at its most horrifying and to ponder the unknowable identity of the depraved murderer himself.
Opera has presented him before, in Phyllis Tate’s The Lodger, where he is the creepy inhabitant of a Victorian lodging house, and in Alban Berg’s Lulu, where he kills the opera’s heroine and her lesbian girlfriend in the final moments.
This new operatic version by librettist Emma Jenkins and composer Iain Bell takes a new slant, highlighted in the work’s subtitle: like a number of recent books, The Women of Whitechapel focuses on those murdered by Jack, who himself never actually appears. As the librettist’s synopsis puts it with deliberate vagueness, each of them is “consumed by the darkness”.
However high-minded the motives, taking Jack out of the story creates a gap at its centre: imagine a version of Don Giovanni that expunges the serial seducer/rapist and you get some idea of the problem the creators face.
Instead, the five murdered women take centre-stage, though neither the piece nor its production by Daniel Kramer avoid cliches in portraying them (“daft trollops with hearts of gold”, as one of them describes two of the others), their clients – top-hatted Victorian toffs every one of them – or the Pirates-of-Penzance-with-violence police.
Bell is an experienced and accomplished composer whose last opera – In Parenthesis – was successfully launched by Welsh National Opera in 2016. Like that piece, his new work demonstrates impeccable technical skills in all facets of operatic composition, though not much of the score strikes home memorably.
Towards the end, the entire company takes part in a grand choral ensemble using an English version of the Requiem Mass that builds to a powerful climax. Even Natalya Romaniw’s impassioned vocalism in the solo scene for Mary Kelly that comes afterwards cannot prevent it from feeling expendable.
Five more mature artists take the other female leads, all of them seizing every opportunity offered by their characters and the writing: especially notable are Janis Kelly’s half-comic, half-touching Polly Nichols, Susan Bullock’s Wagnerian warrior-maiden of a Liz Stride, and Josephine Barstow’s terrifyingly stern procuress, Maud.
The men’s roles are a good deal thinner, though William Morgan makes something out of his campaigning writer, as does Alex Otterburn as Squibby, the lad from the knacker’s yard: the fact that the roles of the Photographer and the Commissioner of Police are rendered by Jenkins in shamelessly one-dimensional terms robs them of interest.
Martyn Brabbins conducts a secure performance with strong contributions from both chorus and orchestra: but the piece itself registers as a limited achievement.