A Condominium in California

Ben McAteer (l) as James and Nicholas Sharratt (r) as Richard in The Devil Inside. Photo by Bill Cooper.
Ben McAteer (l) as James and Nicholas Sharratt (r) as Richard in The Devil Inside. Photo by Bill Cooper.

Never a dull moment in Stuart MacRae’s score and not a word wasted in Louise Welsh’s libretto of the opera The Devil Inside (Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales co-production, Tapestry Opera Toronto presenter), a contemporary remake of a Faustian bargain tale by R.L. Stevenson, on tour in Toronto till March 13. I say a remake—it’s actually its own creation, much more sophisticated than the original RLS story “The Bottle Imp” that bizarrely gets a happy ending: MacRae and Welsh’s ending makes clear that there is no escaping one’s actions and bargains. They also introduce addiction into the story, a perfectly logical addendum to a plot revolving around wish fulfillment.

It all begins with a pair of friends (Ben McAteer and Nicholas Sharratt) wandering around the countryside at night in search of shelter and knocking at a mansion door. So far, so Gothic, but as the discussions start whether to take up the offer from the old man (Steven Page) and buy his wish-fulfilling, soul-damning bottle and afterwards, when sufficiently sated, resell it for less, it becomes clear that the chief strength of the opera is not the heebie-jeebies—although it’s got those too—but the deep psychological drama at its core. The two men undergo radical trajectories and the friendship changes and all but wanes, until they inevitably meet one final time for the metaphysical settling of the accounts. The bottle changes hands many times, and once, significantly, out of love, which beautifully complicates the responsibilities and debts among the principals.

Owning the bottle affects the owner’s personality, and we see each of the holders overcome by the contradictory forces of the exuberance of desire and the burden of corruption. The very final scene, where the lovers James and Catherine (Rachel Kelly) try to save each other by taking the other’s bottle and damnation upon themselves, and James’ once-friend Richard desperately wants the bottle back because he craves being in the possession of the imp is a masterful, intense huis clos.

Which was, alas, somewhat marred on the opening night by the loudness of the orchestra (baton: Michael Rafferty). The pit-stage balance was just fine until the final confrontation, and since there were no surtitles, much of the carefully crafted text by Louise Welsh was lost on me. Luckily, printed copies of the libretto were on hand. I fully realized how excellent that scene was only after I’d read the booklet. It’s a matter of balance easily corrected, and I’m sure by the second night they will have figured the space of the Harboufront Centre Theatre out.

MacRae’s sometimes veers into lyrical tonality when the drama requires it, but most of the time works in an action-packed, dazzling atonality and dissonance. The instruments are being pushed to the limits of expressivity, without however any of the music jumping out of the dramatic context and distracting. MacRae’s is responsive, illustrative music, sometimes literal to the words uttered on stage, sometimes contradicting them and being more truthful about the inner states of the characters. He also likes language, and its musicality: I never thought the words “a condominium in California” can be so cheekily musical, for ex. MacRae also steers clear from musical clichés established around the appearance of the supernatural, the ghosts, the evil. There are no lazy choices in this score.

How do you convey luxury with a low budget set? With lighting and repositioning of perspective, turns out, and director Matthew Richardson, designer Samal Blak and lighting designer Ace McCarron manage to convey the mansion and the developer’s penthouse with barely anything but the high ceilings and vast empty spaces of the propertied, and by turning our eyes toward the vistas through the windows of those homes.

The cast were uniformly good: baritone Steven Page compelling as the Old Man and later in the opera as the Vagrant, baritone Ben McAteer as the Everyman-ish James burdened by consciousness on top of the weakness, tenor Nicholas Sharratt as Richard, the blind man of pleasure, from my seat looking very much like Robert Lepage, and the light-timbred mezzo Rachel Kelly as Catherine, who although enters James’ life after he’s relinquished the bottle, turns out is not a stranger to greed of a very particular kind herself.

How did you understand the ending? Let me know in the comments. The Devil Inside continues March 12 and 13. 

Rachel Kelly (Catherine) with  Ben McAteer (James). Photo by Bill Cooper/Scottish Opera.
Rachel Kelly (Catherine) with Ben McAteer (James). Photo by Bill Cooper/Scottish Opera.

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