Friday, 5 February 2016

Stuart MacRae & Louise Walsh's The Devil Inside from Music Theatre Wales

The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
Stuart MacRae & Louise Welsh The Devil Inside; Nicholas Sharratt, Ben McAteer, Steven Page, Rachel Kelly, dir: Matthew Richardson, cond: Michael Rafferty; Music Theatre Wales at the Peacock Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An evening of vividly gripping theatre in this new opera based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story

The route that Stuart MacRae and Louse Welsh have taken for their first full-length opera is reassuringly traditional in terms of getting experience of the genre, whilst the resulting work shows itself to be admirably anything but. The two started with two shorter works, the 15 minute Remembrance Day which was part of Scottish Opera's Five:15 - Operas Made in Scotland in 2009 and then the fifty minute Ghost Patrol in 2012 which was a Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales co-production. Their latest opera, The Devil Inside is again a co-production between Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, with The Devil Inside being premiered by Scottish Opera in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and then touring England and Wales, with the same cast, with Music Theatre Wales.

The Devil Inside - Rachel Kelly - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Rachel Kelly - photo Bill Cooper
We caught the London premiere of the opera on 3 February 2016 at the Peacock Theatre when Michael Rafferty conducted the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble with Nicholas Sharratt as Richard, Ben McAteer as James, Rachel Kelly as Catherine and Steven Page as the Old Man and a Vagrant. The director was Matthew Richardson with design by Samal Blak, and lighting by Ace McCarron.

It is clear from the programme notes that the opera is very much a collaboration and that Louise Welsh (best known for her novels) did not simply write a text and hand it over to Stuart MacRae. The piece they have crafted is wonderfully thrilling and gripping, with a plot updating Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Bottle Imp to the 21st century. Richard (Nicholas Sharratt) and James (Ben McAteer) are lost in the mountains, the come across a mansion owned by an old man (Steven Page). The man reveals the secret of his wealth, a magic bottle which contains an imp which will fulfil all your wishes. The only drawback, the owner's soul is damned to Hell if they own it when they die, and they can only get rid of the bottle by selling it for less than they paid for it. At Richard's urging, James buys the bottle.

The remainder of the opera examines Richard and James's attitude to and need for the bottle and its imp. James eventually sells the bottle to Richard, and acquires a wife Catherine (Rachel Kelly) but they have need again when Katherine is diagnosed with a terminal illness. James has moral objections to the bottle, wondering whether good can come out of evil, whilst Richard is addicted and becomes like an addict who fails to cure his addition.

The Devil Inside - Steven Page - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Steven Page
photo Bill Cooper
The final scene, on a Pacific island where James and Catherine try to sell the bottle (now worth virtually the lowest coin possible) is rendered morally ambiguous by the participation of Richard who makes a final buy of the bottle, for one last wish. The result is an opera which has elements of the dark thriller. Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh really make you invest in the characters and what might happen to them. But woven into this are the themes of morality, moral ambiguity and addiction, as well as the transformative power of love.

Stuart MacRae is clearly a writer of orchestral music of great talent, his orchestral score for The Devil Inside doesn't so much accompany the singers as surround the vocal lines with a magical web of sound. The music moves flexibly between dissonance, tonality and atonality and the instrumental musicians made use of quarter tones too. This was most noticeable in the music for the bottle imp (the imp never singers but MacRae gives the orchestra a distinct and magical cast). It was a complete sound world which drew you in and carried you to the end.

The opera had hardly a spare moment, its seven scenes encompassed 110 minutes of music, and Louise Walsh's taut libretto uses very much a spare demotic style which is not without poetry. She is clearly aware of the need to leave space for the music.

The only aspect of the opera which worried me was the vocal writing. Stuart MacRae has clearly worked hard to make the vocal lines singable and of interest. But there seemed an insufficient distinction between different emotional states so that the overall tint of the vocal writing came over as too uniform. I wanted the more straightforward conversational moments to be far more differentiated from the complex emotional passages. It seemed to be only in the final scene that he ratched things up a notch. But this is a first full length opera and an enormous achievement so I look forward with interest to what Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh will do next.

The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt
photo Bill Cooper
Ben McAteer and Nicholas Sharratt formed a wonderful double act throughout the opera. Nicholas Sharratt's Richard started off nervy and excitable and then gave a stunning descent into addiction. By contrast Ben McAteer's James was the more stable and solid one, but constantly worrying about the moral qualities of using the bottle and disturbed not by addiction but by conscience. The two characters were profoundly disturbed by the moment when they asked the bottle imp to show itself. Though here, I wanted something more n the music, a sense of greater otherness. Ben McAteer's James also struggled with the transformative power as love as Rachel Kelly's Catherine came into James's life. Kelly gave a lovely portrait of someone carefree coming to terms with the grim realities of life (childlessness possible lack of love and death). Both McAteer and Kelly's characters endangered their souls for the sake of the other, in a depiction of love which wonderfully avoided the stickily sentimental. Steven Page gave to different yet vivid performances as the old man who sold the bottle at the beginning, and was gleeful to be relieved of it, and of a vagrant at the end.

Michael Rafferty conducted the 14 players of the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble who gave a dazzling performance of Stuart MacRae's often seductive and always fascinating score. The players were called upon to give us some interesting doublings, not just bassoon and contra-bassoon, but the oboist also plays a bagpipe practice chanter, and the violins play harmonicas at one point. They all brought an incisive precision to the music. Neither the instrumental ensemble nor the capable cast gave any hint that this was the first run of a new opera, so natural did the performance feel.

Matthew Richardson's production and Samal Blak's designs were imaginatively minimal, throwing focus on the performers and making us care for the characters. Blak's designs made striking use of projection, with a minimum of props.

I am not sure that the Peacock Theatre was the ideal venue for the performance; many venues on the tour are smaller. But this was a vividly gripping evening of opera which certainly made me look forward to more.

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