Faustian concept cleverly updated by MacRae and Walsh in The Devil Inside

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stuart MacRae, The Devil Inside: Music Theatre Wales / Michael Rafferty (conductor), Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 18.4.2016. (GR)

Nicholas Sharratt (left) Steven Page (right); (C) Bill Cooper.
Nicholas Sharratt (left) Steven Page (right); (C) Bill Cooper.

Richard: Nicholas Sharratt (Tenor)
James: Ben McAteer (High Baritone)
Catherine: Rachel Kelly (Mezzo)
Old Man/Vagrant: Steven Page (Baritone)

Director and Dramaturgy: Matthew Richardson
Designer: Samal Blak
Lighting: Ace McCarron

A new opera from Stuart MacRae to the libretto of Louise Walsh, based upon The Bottle Imp, a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. A joint production from Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales

With opera productions that are both innovative and inspiring, I have been a fan of Music Theatre Wales since 2002 when they brought The Electrification of the Soviet Union to Birmingham. Their latest music-theatre creation, The Devil Inside, was co-commissioned with Scottish Opera and closed its successful tour at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Fittingly the performance on 18th April 2016 was dedicated ‘in gratitude and deep admiration’ to the memory of Peter Maxwell Davies, MTW’s patron and the inspiration behind their foundation in 1988. Once again, the state-of-the-art Cardiff-based chamber opera company delivered an experience that was that little bit different, both thought-provoking and fascinating, with an enigmatic finale to stimulate audience reaction.

Based upon The Bottle Imp, a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, the libretto of novelist Louise Walsh was, for me, the key element of this latest conception from MTW, materialising from her collaboration with composer Stuart MacRae – said by MacRae in the pre-concert interview to be ‘his bones, her flesh’. Bargains with the devil are a prodigious source throughout opera and the arts in general from Doctor Faustus to Tom Rakewell, so RLS’s take is an excellent starting point. Here, as the combination of the original title and the adapted version imply, evil is encapsulated within a flask, capable of granting its owner their every wish except longevity. However should the holder die in possession, he or she is condemned to hell; the only recourse is to sell it on for less than it had been bought for. This sounds easy enough, but as Walsh explores the Jekyll and Hyde characteristics of her three main protagonists, it goes horribly wrong (RLS was an idol of Walsh). And in the final scene – vastly altered from the glib one in The Bottle Imp – Walsh executes her pièce de résistance: with the resale value of the bottle at rock bottom, the doomed owner’s final wish seemingly creates ‘good’ from ‘evil’, raising the question of moral ambiguity. Walsh keeps her words simple, which made the performance that easy to follow, subtitles filling in wherever necessary.

The work is divided into seven scenes, and MacRae cleverly scores a musical identity to each – four up to the interval and three in the second half. Predominantly tonal interludes link the scenes making it through-composed, simulating passages of time and locality changes; these bridging segments are often in stark contrast to the zesty basically atonal music that accompanies to the diverse stage exploits, actions centred around the theme of temptation (sounds that I thought illustrated the acknowledged influence of Peter Maxwell Davies on MacRae). I expected the imp – a constant source of gluttonous fancies – to be represented by some motif, but in his conversation with MTW’s Michael McCarthy, MacRae had explained that he thought that such a device might be too repetitive in this case. Instead MacRae employs a variety of high pitched instruments to symbolise and colour this character – the piccolo of Joanna Shaw particularly prominent, along with an extremely busy Julian Warburton, a versatile percussionist on drum-kit, glockenspiel and vibraphone. Indeed the whole fourteen-strong Music Theatre Wales Ensemble, with each part the responsibility of a single player, were flawless under the direction of Michael Rafferty. One strange doubling among the group came from Joseph Sanders, adding the Bagpipe Practice Chanter to his oboe. But the most unusual music effect came as Violins I and II abandon their instruments for harmonicas when love enters in Scene 2. Nevertheless motifs are present, such as the falling three note figure that represents the ever decreasing price of the bottle, introduced by James in Scene 1 on ‘Less each time’. MacRae was favourably effective with his mood reproductions: the portentous air that opens Scene 1 as the back-packers approach a distant light; the up-beat humour that accompanies the newly married couple in Scene 3 contrasting with the alarm bells on their third wedding anniversary in Scene 3 when time begins to run out for Catherine; the shear uncertainty as Richard tries to come to terms with life with and without the bottle. However these proficiencies of orchestration were slightly let down by some rather bland vocal lines that did little to enhance the drama.

As with many chamber opera productions director Matthew Richardson and designer   Samal Blak kept both sets and props to a minimum, all tastefully lit by MTW regular Ace McCarron. Several projections, such as the silhouetted airplane to assimilate transfer of location and the skyscraper view of a property magnate in Scene 2, filled the narrative gaps Then as Richard’s obsession with the imp in the bottle takes hold in Scene 5, the psychiatrist’s couch and ink-blot on the underside of the bed suggest a therapy session; impressions of his addictive state are supported by his reference to needle-marks in his forearms. One consistency of Richardson’s dramaturgy is the perpetual burden under which the owner of the bottle is placed and the relief they feel when its title has been shifted. Set in current times, the costumes ranged from the smart city gear befitting of wished-for wealth to the out and out poverty of the vagrant.

The pick of the singers for me was baritone Steven Page as the Old Man, who with firm tone and clarity is the first character to detail the benefits and pitfalls of the bottle. His initial ‘Who is there?’ to the two backpackers set a chilling precedence for what was to come, masterfully portraying a character consumed by the devil inside him. Page’s instant makeover having sold the poisoned chalice – gaining a foot in height – was highly revealing and indicative of the moral slipperiness at the heart of the piece. His Vagrant too was excellent, sympathetically interpreted. The nearest thing to an aria came from Catherine in Scene 4, passionately delivered by mezzo Rachel Kelly, coping well with the difficult microtones in MacRae’s lines. Her duet with new husband James (high baritone Ben McAteer) in the bridal chamber was simultaneously hopeful and edgy, posing the issue as to whether happiness can blossom from a fortune founded on evil gains. Tenor Nicholas Sharratt as Richard completed the cast; his best moment came I thought at the beginning of Scene 5 when slouching in his office, he bitterly portrays his obsession with ‘Temptation, the bottle is hunger. The imp crouched within…’ And of all Walsh’s pithy lines this embraces the message of The Devil Inside.

Geoff Read


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