'The Devil Inside'. Photo: Bill Cooper
'The Devil Inside'. Photo: Bill Cooper © Bill Cooper

Opera composers have long favoured stories about superhuman greed and dicing with the devil. Wagner’s Ring cycle deals comprehensively with the first. Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, among others, homes in on the latter. How astute of Stuart MacRae and his librettist, Louise Welsh, to come up with a scenario that combines both.

Their new opera, The Devil Inside, is economical in many ways. A co-production between Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, it lasts around 100 minutes, has a cast of four and an orchestra of 14. It presents the dimensions of a chamber opera but has more to say than some productions twice its scale.

For their source MacRae and Welsh have turned to a pithy Scottish tale. Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Bottle Imp” tells of an evil genie in a bottle, who grants its owner’s every desire until it is sold, each time for a lower price. The loser is the one left holding the bottle when the price reaches rock bottom. He or she goes to hell.

The tale, with its complex interplay of moral messages, is well told. Welsh paces her libretto skilfully and times the final twist to perfection. MacRae’s music is terminally restless, as if in thrall to the imp’s compulsions. Wind and brass spend the evening on a non-stop racetrack of virtuosity (how do the singers find their notes?). There is a sharpness to MacRae’s sound-world that is less effective when the emotions turn to love, but for the fever of greed it is supercharged. The sounds when the imp is revealed in the bottle come straight from hell.

MacRae’s vocal writing is less individual, but Scottish Opera’s well-chosen cast deliver it with clarity. Ben McAteer sings strongly as the opera’s central figure and is well supported by Nicholas Sharratt, Rachel Kelly and Steven Page. Under conductor Michael Rafferty the soloists of the Scottish Opera Orchestra rise to the challenge of what must be a hair-raising evening for them. Matthew Richardson’s production is stark and modern rather than atmospheric. The opera updates Stevenson’s 1891 tale to a 21st-century world of avarice, with property developers — not bankers for a change — as its target. The best opera plots never age.

To January 29, scottishopera.org.uk

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