MUSIC Theatre Wales – one of the liveliest outfits at the cutting edge of opera today – bring a fascinating new work to the Royal Northern College of Music on February 16.
It’s The Devil Inside, written by Louise Welsh and composed by Stuart MacRae, based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The tale’s a weird one, with echoes of the Faust legend, in which two young guys stumble on a bottle with magical powers. Stevenson called his story The Bottle Imp, and, like the genie of the lamp, the imp inside the bottle can make anything you wish for come true … but there’s a catch.
The bottle has to be bought and sold from one person to another, and the holder must always re-sell it for less than was paid for it – or be cursed to suffer eternal damnation.
So it’s about dicing with the Devil, in an upside-down, pass-the-parcel world where the thing that can do most for you (or anyone else) must always lose monetary value if you are not to regret it in the long run.
The two men who persuade each other to buy the magic bottle, taking a risk for the sake of the benefits it seems to promise, have high hopes at first. One becomes fabulously wealthy, and when his beautiful wife discovers she is dying, he’s able to wish her back to health.
The other is haunted by desire for it, which itself is eating him from inside. There’s an implied link with the idea of addiction, where the thing that you feel does wonders for you is simultaneously destroying you.
That’s an aspect of the story that’s brought out really well in this production and in the performances of the four singers Nicholas Sharratt, Ben McAteer, Rachel Kelly and Steven Page.
I saw it at the London premiere last week, and the piece is certainly stimulating in the dilemmas it expresses. The musical style is varied: edgy and nervous at the opening and in some later scenes, atmospheric and dramatic (as befits an operatic work), using tonality for contrast rather than a basis.
And the casting is spot-on. Nicholas Sharratt and Steven Page are well known to Manchester audiences through work with Opera North and others; Ben McAteer has sung with Clonter Opera; and Rachel Kelly is, like him, a Samling scholar and an undoubted star in the making.