The very best ghost stories begin in the dark. It is a pitch black filthy night. Two sinister-looking men hooded in bulky outdoor walking gear with backpacks clamber up a ladder from the orchestra pit into sight – wet, ravenous and hopelessly lost. They glimpse a pinprick of light which is not a star, as they first imagine, but a far off house where they are greeted by a strange, world-weary old man carrying an umbrella. It is a wonderfully atmospheric beginning to The Devil Inside, a new opera receiving its first performance in Glasgow from Stuart MacRae, with libretto by Louise Welsh, based on The Bottle Imp, a deliciously dark Hawaiian short story by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Steven Page (Old Man) and Nicholas Sherratt (Richard) © Bill Cooper
Steven Page (Old Man) and Nicholas Sherratt (Richard)
© Bill Cooper

The aim of Scottish Opera's Five:15 project was to introduce composers and writers to work together to produce 15 minute operas  which would hopefully result in the creation of larger scale works. MacRae and Welsh worked together to produce Remembrance Day in 2009, and then Ghost Patrol at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival. One of the big challenges faced by the librettists in particular was cutting wordy scripts down to the barest of bones to convey the story for opera. The learning experience has been successful for Welsh, who has not only distilled Stevenson’s tale using effective simple poetic clarity, but has come up with a new utterly chilling ending.

The Faustian plot is beguilingly simple. There is a bottle in which lives a devilish imp who will grant the current owner whatever he or she desires. The bottle may be sold on, but always for less than its purchase price, but with it comes the curse that a person dying in possession gets to roast in hellfire for ever. Shaking up the fairy-tale bottle for today’s more secular times, considerable thought was given to the modern equivalent of Stevenson’s eternal damnation, with the result that by the end it is clear that the Bottle Imp is indeed the worst sort of devil, his work shockingly unfinished.

Scored for just 15 players, MacRae’s music was tautly drawn, angular and intense as conductor Michael Rafferty relished the swings between orchestral lyrical richness and exposed, nervy solos and ensembles to reflect the strange twists of the tale. At key ‘bottle’ moments there was an ethereal quality to the writing and instrumentation, with slippery microtones appearing and odd noises emerging, at one point involving the percussionist slowly deflating a balloon as the three upper string players set down their instruments and blew softly into harmonicas. Each of the seven scenes had a different musical feel, with short sparky interludes joining up the gaps. The spiky and occasionally riotous score was matched with lyrical and expressive vocal parts which seemed to come very naturally following speech pattern.

Ben McAteer (James) and Rachel Kelly (Catherine) © Bill Cooper
Ben McAteer (James) and Rachel Kelly (Catherine)
© Bill Cooper
Ben McAteer was James, the hapless first bottle buyer, using his riches to become a property magnate, his high baritone part expressing the range of initial wariness, delight and greed.  He sells the bottle to his flakier friend Richard, tenor Nicholas Sharratt, then meets Catherine, herself on the prowl for a rich man and is smitten. As time passes, the marriage remains childless but in a passionate and pivotal tense scene Rachel Kelly’s Catherine has news to pass on, not pregnancy as James in a glorious stumble assumes, but a terminal diagnosis. James needs the bottle to fix things, but Richard has bought and sold the bottle so many times it has dangerously minimal value left. The battle of who will get left with the Imp and its hellish legacy intensifies. The female character in Stevenson’s tale is fairly minor, but here Rachel Kelly as Catherine, her strong mezzo soaring to the top of the score, takes charge and sorts the men out. With baritone Steven Page playing the Old Man, there is not a weak link in this uniformly strong cast directed by Matthew Richardson who portray their disintegrating friendships over the passing of time with a fearsome fatality, for although the Bottle brings riches, those who own it seem to have the whole world upon their shoulders.

Samal Blak's sparse monochromatic set, using shadowplay and arty inkblots all sensitively lit by Ace McCarron, underlined the simplicity of a terrible story compellingly told. With a brand new opera, you never quite know what you are going to get, but as the darkness slowly encroached on the final scene, there was a truly chilling end as a final transaction was made and the last wish granted in an ending that gave us lots to think about as we left the theatre. A joint production between Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, this was a wonderful ghost story, just the thing for a dark winter night.