The Bottle Imp may have started life as a fanciful and simple tale told by Robert Louis Stevenson in the late 19th century, an Aladdin-like story about a malevolent imp that grants wishes and fulfills desires. But transformed into The Devil Inside, a chamber opera performed by Toronto's Tapestry Opera, Stevenson's tale has become as modern morality play about the nature of greed, love, death, friendship and desire. It's become, simply, a great yarn, effectively told in music and text.
The Devil Inside was created by Scottish Opera, who are presenting their original production of last January here. It was written by novelist Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae and, among other things, provides a valuable object lesson for us here in Canada eager to create our own opera traditions. The Devil Inside is simple – four singers, an orchestra of just 14 players, pared-down staging, nothing fancy – but it works beautifully because it is extremely well written, tells a compelling story, and does so with economy and skill.
Louise Welsh is famous in Scotland for her thrillers, and her sureness in plotting The Devil Inside is evident from the first moment. The Bottle Imp, Stevenson's original, is about a genie who can grant wishes to the owner of his bottle, but will damn to hell anyone who dies with the bottle in their possession. And, oh yes, to get rid of it, you have to sell it for less than you paid for it. Welsh has kept these elements of the original as she updated the story to modern times, and added several plot twists that kept us gripped in the thrall of a well-told narrative. The libretto is in English, there were no surtitles, and, on the few occasions where I couldn't make out the words being sung on stage, I was angry, I realized and frustrated – a sure tribute to Welsh's skill. I realized I was following the plot like a movie whose sound goes wonky – I needed to hear what was being said. When's the last time that happened to you at the opera?
Stuart MacRae's score is equally skillful and dramatic. Each twist of the plot, each moment in the "b" storyline, was given a perfect musical counterpart – as much through sonorities as through melody or harmony. You could feel the story through the sound of the instruments, their timbre and connections – MacRae was as astute telling a story with his medium as Welsh was with hers. Michael Rafferty led his musicians with verve and control.
The musicality and dramatics on stage were equally spellbinding. Steven Page set the creepy tone for the proceedings right from the first scene as the Old Man who sells the bottle to our two main protagonists, setting the action in motion. Page's baritone was clear and focused, and his horror at the bottle's legacy was palpable. Ben McAteer was equally persuasive as James, the friend who encourages his buddy to purchase the bottle, who eventually acquires it himself, and is rendered obsessively mad by it. McAteer presented just the right amount of innocence in his earlier scenes, and mania in his later ones. Nicholas Sharratt is Richard, the man who buys the bottle, becomes rich but unhappy, and gives it up to James, immediately to be blessed with Catherine, who becomes his wife. Richard's moral dilemmas are at the heart of the opera, and Sharratt expressed them with conviction. Rachel Kelly plays Catherine with a lot of power, although it was some of her lines in the second half that I had trouble hearing, so powerful was the sound coming from her.
The Devil Inside is a modest operatic piece, but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. It knows its limitations, but within them is so excellently written and presented that it was just a lot of fun, despite its tragic implications and moral angst.
The Devil Inside runs until March 13 in Toronto (tapestryopera.com).