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Murder at the Coliseum in ENO’s Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel

04 April, 2019 — By Michael White

Susan Bullock, left, and Lesley Garrett. Photo: Alastair Muir

WHEN English National Opera declared that its current season would celebrate the empower­ment of women, not a few of us were baffled to discover that a highlight of this celebration was a brand new opera about Jack the Ripper. How did ENO imagine women were empowered by being slaughtered?

Last week we found out when Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel opened at the Coliseum. And the answer, of sorts, is in the second part of the title. Jack doesn’t appear in this piece, only his victims: it’s their imagined story that we get. And what a dreadful story – of oppression, poverty and 19th-century male indifference to the plight of women at the margins of society.

Watching this opera ought to make you angry. But the story is so limply told, with childlike virtue-signalling and every operatic cliché in the book, it doesn’t.

On the plus side, the cast features a Golden Girls line-up of troupers from the glory days of ENO – Marie McLaugh­lin, Lesley Garrett, Janis Kelly, Susan Bullock – who may not have the voices they once boasted but still know how to perform, with a vengeance.

ringing them back from the past to play ageing ladies of the night is a stroke of genius. And there’s an equally fabulous performance from a comparative newcomer, Natalya Romaniw, as their younger colleague.

But the score, by Iain Bell, needs some atten­tion from the Ripper’s knife. It’s good at atmosphere and has an easy-listening lyricism that develops, some­times, into beauty.
But it’s overlong, with not much pace and little energy. And it feels secondhand, owing too much to Britten, Hollywood and Steven Sondheim.

Time and time again you think its turning into Sweeney Todd. If only.

Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel continues until April 12, Coliseum, St Martins Lane, WC2N 4ES, 020 7845 9300, www.eno.org, 7.30pm, tickets from £12

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