Peacock Theatre, London, Thursday 4th February, 2016
Music by Stuart MacRae, Libretto by Louise Walsh
Sung in English with English surtitles
Ben McAteer (James), Nicholas Sharratt (Richard), Rachel Kelly (Catherine), Steven Page (Old Man/Vagrant)
Matthew Richardson (director), Samal Blak (designer), Ace McCarron (lighting)
Orchestra of Music Theatre Wales / Michael Rafferty
Written by Richard Whitehouse
As he nears his 40th birthday, Stuart MacRae can reflect on a transformation in his standing in that a reputation for orchestral and instrumental music has become one centred on opera. A decade ago, The Assassin Tree was a bold step that later stage-works – dance-opera Echo and Narcissus, TV opera Remembrance Day and music-theatre Ghost Patrol – consolidated prior to The Devil Inside, which assuredly takes its place next to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek and Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face as the most significant British chamber opera from the past four decades.
Its seven scenes playing for 100 minutes, The Devil Inside takes its cue from a short story by master of the genre Robert Louis Stevenson. The Bottle Imp (1891) is typical of its author by being forward-looking in concept yet wholly of its time in content. Understandable, then, that MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh should have wished to update this latter such that it takes on an essentially 21st-century ambience of aspiring individuals both attracted and repelled by the trappings of what might be called late-capitalism. Whether such updating could have seen fit to dispose of the actual bottle in favour of a present-day equivalent (a social-media patent, perhaps?) is a moot point, but there can be little doubt that the present scenario works well on its own terms – the mundanity of its environs counterbalancing the otherness of its message.
Scenically the opera is a triumph. Matthew Richardson’s direction is fast-paced yet flexible in its delineating of character and circumstance, abetted in both respects by Samal Blak’s starkly immediate sets – the handling of scene-changes by a group of black-clad and masked figures a telling adjunct to the drama at hand – and Ace McCarron’s typically claustrophobic lighting. This performance took place at London’s Peacock Theatre – its stage well suited to chamber opera, with an auditorium where any lack of perspective is outweighed by its clarity and focus.
The cast could hardly be improved on. Ben McAteer conveys James’ doubt and vulnerability in full measure, his resonant baritone an admirable foil to the edgy tenor of Nicholas Sharratt who captures both the impulsiveness and vacillation of Richard in his fatal obsession with the bottle and its magic. The mezzo Rachel Kelly has eloquence to spare as Catherine, ostensibly a victim of circumstance who belatedly seizes fate by the throat, with baritone Steven Page bringing his customary authority to the ‘minor’ roles of Old Man and Vagrant which frame the drama in sound fashion. Whether the denouement as composer and librettist envisage it is an improvement on the terse original is debatable, but there is no doubting the conviction of Michael Rafferty’s conducting or commitment of the musicians from Music Theatre Wales.
The score itself bears all the hallmarks of MacRae’s lucid and perceptive take on a post-war modernism in which theatrical intensity goes hand with that musical cohesion as ensures the opera’s overall success. The orchestration, for an ensemble of 14 players, is as economic and resourceful as is to be expected from one who might reasonably be termed a seasoned opera composer, making one anticipate more keenly where his dramatic instinct may lead him next. The Devil Inside will be touring these next two months, and should on no account be missed.
Further performances take place on February 9th (Cardiff), 10th (Basingstoke), 16th (Manchester), 23rd (Aberystwyth), 26th (Huddersfield), April 3rd (Mold) and 18th (Birmingham)
For further information on The Devil Inside and Music Theatre Wales click here