Scottish Opera’s The Devil Inside, presented by Tapestry Opera opened last night at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. Expectations were high I think. This was Scottish Opera’s North American debut and the Glasgow premier of the piece had received enthusiastic reviews in the British press. How would it cope with being translated from the relative sophistication of the 1200 seat Theatre Royal Glasgow to the rather spartan 250 seat Harbourfront Theatre? How would an updating of a short story with Scottish roots by a Scottish composer and librettist translate culturally? The short answer is very well indeed. It’s a fine piece and it was very well presented; musically and dramatically.
Lets look, briefly, at the libretto by crime fiction writer Louise Welsh first. I say briefly because, for once, we have an opera with a killer cliff hanger ending and I don’t want to spoil for anyone who has yet to see the piece. Stevenson’s story is very much centred on the Hawaiian Keawe and his relationships with the various people he meets during the story and, of course, his relationship with the Bottle Imp. Welsh moves the story to the present and transfers aspects of Keawe to each of her three main characters as well as using them to subsume the aspects of much of the rest of Stevenson’s cast. Logistically, this allows the piece to work with just four singers but more importantly it allows her to explore different aspects of obsession and addiction through the differing relationships of the characters with the Bottle Imp. Further, it provides more space for exploring the central question “can good come from evil?” and provides the basis for the brilliant and disturbing last scene. I think I’m going to return to explore some of these themes after the end of the run. Let’s just say for now that this is a taut thriller that never drags, has some philosophical meat and a really good ending.
The music by Stuart MacRae is interesting too. It’s thoroughly modern but quite accessible to the reasonably open eared and open minded. It flits back and forth between tonality and atonality as the needs of the action change. I don’t think anyone is going to go home humming the tunes but there are elements of lyricism when the plot calls for it and, conversely, passages of considerable brutality when appropriate. It’s scored for fourteen players with the bassier woodwinds represented and lots of percussion. It’s rich and colourful and highly atmospheric. It’s also fairly sensitive to the singers and conductor Michael Rafferty makes sure the singers are covered (most of the time anyway). This is pretty important because there are no surtitles. Both music and libretto move the plot forward but do allow time for reflection and interior character development. It’s not a “numbers opera” but the traditional elements are there, blended pretty much seamlessly. The end result is a proper full length (about 100 minutes plus interval) opera with both plot and psychological complexity.
Director Matthew Richardson copes remarkably well with the small Harbourfront stage. Basically we get a black box with rear projections and characters entering via the draped sides. Props are arranged and rearranged on the fly by a trio of entirely black hooded stage hand/extras. The ambiguity of them being there and not there adds another layer to the otherness of the stage action as well as avoiding hold ups in the action. The rest is down to lighting and Personenregie and it’s highly effective. So, simple, direct, honest and effective. What’s not to like?
The three main characters are sung by emerging artists on the British scene with the more experienced Steven Page making up the quartet as the Old Man at the beginning and the Vagrant at the end. Ben McAteer sings the principal role of James. He has a solid, powerful baritone and really good stage presence. This is the most emotionally complex role and he conveys the thoughtful, ambiguous character well, especially at moments of interior, lyrical, reflection such as when he compares his own, damned, state to a poor couple crossing the road in the rain. Tenor Nicholas Sharratt plays his friend and, perhaps, nemesis Richard. This is the character most affected by the Bottle Imp, going from cocky and overconfident youth to broken down addict in a highly convincing way. Then there’s Rachel Kelly as Catherine, James’ wife. the Irish mezzo gets some of the most emotionally charged music, especially in the scene where she has to break to James that she’s not, as they hope, pregnant but mortally ill. She brings this off most effectively against quite heavy orchestration. It makes sense to have a trio of age appropriate singers and we were in luck seeing three who looked and sounded the part.
There are three more chances to see The Devil Inside in Toronto; tonight and tomorrow at 8pm and on Sunday afternoon.
Photo credit: Bill Cooper. All taken in Glasgow I think and the wider shots look a lot less claustrophobic than at Harbourfront.