Perverse, maybe, to describe an opera about Jack the Ripper as inoffensive, but there it is. The applause that greeted Iain Bell’s new English National Opera commission on opening night was well deserved but his grisly subject matter ought to have earned a lairier response – something the football fans on a Saturday night lash in Trafalgar Square might have provided.

Alex Otterburn (Squibby) and Natalya Romaniw (Mary Kelly) © Alastair Muir
Alex Otterburn (Squibby) and Natalya Romaniw (Mary Kelly)
© Alastair Muir

The insuperable problem with Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel – apart from a clumsy title – is the absence of the lad himself. Remove Jack from his own story and there is no antagonist and so, by extension, no dramatic structure. Instead the task of creating tension falls to secondary characters like Josephine Barstow’s child-procuring madam and Robert Hayward’s child-pimping Commissioner of Police. Everything else is pageant.

The avowed intention of Bell and his librettist, Emma Jenkins, was to give a voice to the Ripper’s victims. That’s a grand way to rationalise their fictional trawl through the final hours of half a dozen unfortunate 19th-century women, although if the result had put flesh on their bones it might have passed muster. Instead, the doomed Polly Nichols (Janis Kelly), Annie Chapman (Marie McLaughlin), Liz Stride (Susan Bullock) and Catherine Eddowes (Lesley Garrett) are presented as refugees from the land of Oom-Pah-Pah. Only Natalya Romaniw’s magnificently sung Mary Kelly emerges in three dimensions, abetted as she is by her supplementary responsibility as the would-be protector of poor little Magpie (Ashirah Foster Notice).

Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett © Alastair Muir
Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett
© Alastair Muir

Broken-backed though it is, JtR:TWoW is never dull despite a running time approaching three hours, which is way too long for so slender a premise. Boredom is kept at bay by colourful orchestrations and fine work from the ENO Chorus, the women in slatternly guise, the men leering beneath stovepipe hats, and from a clutch of outstanding solo performances. Soutra Gilmour’s claustrophobic settings, atmospherically lit by Paul Anderson, attenuate the width of the Coliseum stage and have clearly been conceived with adaptability in mind (this is a co-production with Opera North, a company that travels), while Daniel Kramer’s direction is a model of restraint compared to some of his earlier work for the company.

Alan Opie (Pathologist) © Alastair Muir
Alan Opie (Pathologist)
© Alastair Muir

The calibre and class of ENO's leading players were extraordinary and between them they elevated the score way beyond its intrinsic worth. Indeed the entire company was in the luxury class, with no less a figure than Nicky Spence popping in from time to time as a utility policeman. Each of the singers already mentioned was on rousing form, especially Bullock whose Marie Lloyd number, "God, I love a fireman", was a pleasantly tawdry second-act opener. The opera’s most potent scene belonged to Kelly, her death unnervingly staged by Kramer with Polly simultaneously both alive and recently dead as she wandered, ghostlike, around her own body on the slab of Alan Opie’s compassionate pathologist. That was an excellent moment of stagecraft; its reprise in a grander form at the end of the opera less so, thanks to the law of diminishing returns. That finale should be Romaniw’s big moment but Bell blows it by making her aria interminable and a sure-fire watch-checking opportunity for those with trains to catch. (Mine went through Whitechapel. I survived.)

Susan Bullock (Liz Stride), Murray Kimmins (Chorus) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes) © Alastair Muir
Susan Bullock (Liz Stride), Murray Kimmins (Chorus) and Lesley Garrett (Catherine Eddowes)
© Alastair Muir

Bell’s score, conducted by Martyn Brabbins with exemplary fervour and played by an ENO Orchestra on rousing form, is packed with tonal ingenuity and makes an immediate impact; but despite the range of moods he employs it rarely transcends a single core energy. The pulse lacks both churn and repose. His technical facility is not in question but for a composer onto his fourth opera (although this is the first I’ve seen) I’d have anticipated a more assured theatrical instinct. As for Jenkins, she understands the power of words but does not always ally them to specific actions, a curious failing that can create odd sensations such as butchery lists that sound like culinary cuts. “Jack-knifed, split, sliced…” Maybe add spatchcock or pulled?

***11