Image courtesy of Bill Cooper.
The Devil Inside
The King’s Theatre
It is written in the King James Bible: “For what shall it profit man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8.36) This is the highly transcendent question that has been the subject of an abundance of literature, music and art for thousands of years. It is also the subject of the new opera by Stuart McRae and Louise Welsh which premiered at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. The Devil Inside is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson called The Bottle Imp. The opera interprets this short story with an intriguing and dynamic balance between the simplicity and magic of a fairytale, whilst also raising complex moral questions.
The basis of the opera is simple: two penniless travellers are caught in a storm in the mountains and are taken in by an old man who sells them a bottle which will grant them any wish; it will give them wealth, love and material possessions. The price for all of this, however, is the eternal damnation of the soul of whoever owns the bottle, while the only way to escape this fate is to sell the bottle on for a lower price. Throughout the opera, the imp bottle exchanges hands and causes much corruption and pain to those who gain ownership of it. Even when the story ends, the characters are not given the benefit of full closure, and the curse of the imp bottle seems to continue.
The presentation of the staging is modern, minimal and at times vaguely harrowing. Particularly in the second act, the symbol of the imp’s face is splashed across both the mattress and the curtains which line the back of the stage. The imp that lives within the bottle has covertly tainted and corrupted the lives of the travellers, subsequently reflected by the set design.
Much is made of this minimalist staging, from the opening moment in which the two main characters climb out of the orchestral pit and onto the stage, until the opera’s denouement comprising stage hands – dressed all in black including black masks, and who sometimes remain upon the lit stage in order to carefully manipulate the props. This unusual staging, in some ways, goes hand in hand with the style of the musical composition; it utilises tonality and atonality in striking dissonance to highlight dramatic points, as well as the sinister nature of the imp. For example, the harsh dissonance occurs when Catherine’s news is the opposite of what James expects.
The Devil Inside is a highly unusual opera but entirely engaging, often because the twists and turns in both the narrative and composition are so unexpected, whilst its resonation with that transcendent Faustian undertone is seen in so much art throughout history.