Opera review: Scottish Opera: The Devil Inside, Glasgow

It’s been an interesting journey, following Stuart MacRae’s development as a composer of opera.

It’s been an interesting journey, following Stuart MacRae’s development as a composer of opera.

Scottish Opera: The Devil Inside | Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Rating ****

The Devil Inside – an adaptation with crime writer Louise Welsh of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Faustian short story The Bottle Imp for Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales – is his fourth and longest. Premiered on Saturday in a production by Matthew Richardson, MacRae finds a warmth and pulsating energy that marks it out as his best yet.

The ever-present bottle contains an imp that will grant any wish. But whoever owns it at the point of death will roast in hell. It can only be sold on to someone with knowledge of its consequences, and at a price lower than the previous sale.

It’s a tantalising dilemma which MacRae and Welsh ingeniously extend by splitting Stevenson’s principal character into two contrasting male persona.

MacRae’s score wastes no time in establishing its role as a binding, life-giving thread. Restless and symbolic from the outset.

The 14-strong pit ensemble is the engine room, with a language that strays magically and meaningfully into the microtonal and downright strange, a sound world mostly well-portrayed - just the odd let-down in absolute precision - under Michael Rafferty’s animated musical direction.

The cast is thoroughly consistent. The two male protagonists – Richard (Nicholas Sharratt) and James (Scottish Opera emerging artist, Ben McAteer) – are a potent match: Sharratt authoritative, and evoking Richard’s underlying common sense, in ever-increasing contrast to McAteer’s disturbing representation of the obsessive, unstable James.

Irish soprano Rachel Kelly finds rapture and despair in equal measure in the emotional roller-coaster ride that is Catherine’s lot. Doubling as the Old Man and Vagrant, Steven Page is rock solid and fittingly sinister.

The straightforward character-focus of Richardson’s production, with Samal Blak’s simple and representative designs as backdrop, strengthens the power of the musical symbolism, though the house in the opening scene, rather than opulent and menacing as it might be, is more like the old line-drawn BBC Play School house. Occasionally, atmosphere loses out to economy.

And while MacRae has succeeded this time in finding a vocal style that genuinely sings, a leap of faith might just have materialised in the really big lyrical moment this opera calls out for. It almost happens.

• Further performances, Tuesday in Glasgow; Friday and Saturday in Edinburgh