This electric new commission from Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh sizzles with energy, even amidst its doom-laden plot. It is one of the most interesting, well sung and well produced pieces of opera that has been seen on the Scottish stage for quite a few years. Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales are to be highly commended for presenting such a large scale new piece of work which perfectly justifies any who might doubt the necessity of commissioning new opera.
The starting point for this new work is a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Only the basic ideas remain in Louise Welsh’s libretto. Whereas Stevenson sets his story in Hawaii, Welsh brings us firmly into the modern day and asks the audience to imagine the tyranny of getting everything they might hope for. What if you could have your heart’s desire whilst always knowing that your soul was at risk for eternity?
The basic premise is this. There’s an imp in a bottle who will grant you riches, health, and just about anything the owner of the bottle might desire. The bottle can be bought and sold but only ever at a lower price than the purchaser originally paid for it. Anyone who dies whilst owning the bottle faces their soul being tormented in hell forever. Clearly owing a debt to the Faust legend, this retelling of the story focuses on the sheer hell that can come from getting what you want. It deals in big themes of heaven, hell, death and judgement, exploring forgiveness and love along the way.
Stuart MacRae wastes no time with an overture in his score. A brief rhythmic nod to Shostakovich ushers the first two characters on stage, climbing up from the pit into a minimalist staging where a very few props will take second place to a stunning lighting design for the rest of the evening.
The two characters are a pair of friends who stumble across an old man’s house by accident. When he invites them in, a glittering reveal suggests his riches simply with light shining from hundreds of silver spheres hanging at different levels across the stage. It is the first of many visual rewards that keep coming all through the evening.
The two characters are a pair of ordinary souls – people to whom extraordinary things are about to happen. Nicholas Sharratt’s Richard is a bit of a wheeler and dealer. He wants the bottle to come his way but doesn’t want to risk his soul at first. He persuades his friend James (Ben McAteer) to buy the bottle with the promise that he’ll take it of his hands later. In fact we’ll see the bottle change hands between them and others a number of times. There’s nothing separating the two friends vocally. Each is strong, powerful and clear. This was a production when the surtitles seemed genuinely superfluous. The words are set incredibly well and though the score is complex and offers many challenges to the ear, the words shine through brilliantly throughout. The production seems a particular achievement for Ben McAteer as he is a Scottish Opera emerging artist 2015/16. This is a brilliant work to have under his belt. Like Sharratt, the strength of his singing was matched by his acting.
The old man from whom the bottle is purchased is played by Steven Page who will return later on in the evening as a vagrant who buys the bottle for almost nothing. Another fabulous voice was matched by strong character acting, the scene with the first sale of the bottle being particularly striking for its weirdness.
The fourth and final voice on the stage is also wonderful. Rachel Kelly sings the part of Catherine – the love interest for James. She has some of the most heartbreaking moments – discovering at one point that she is dying and at another (once she’s been healed by the imp of all that ailed her) that she will have no children.
MacRae’s score steps easily from tonality to atonality. For much of the time, the small orchestra of soloists drawn from Scottish Opera is setting the mood simply through rhythm and sparse simple snatched phrases. Percussion features heavily. And what’s happening down in the pit is mirrored on stage. A single note or gong matches the tiniest detail on stage that tells us confidently where we are. An intense pinprick of light shows forth a star. A projected crosshatch of a window indicates a whole house. An airplane’s silhouette crosses the stage from one side to the other and a city appears in silhouette as the sun rises at the beginning of the second scene to particularly strong orchestral writing.
Director Matthew Richardson has worked well with designer Samal Blak and Lighting Designer Ace McCarron to conjure up from the smallest details on a black, white and grey stage a whole world in which the action takes place. This is a confident production which never loses its way.
All the best opera makes us think about ourselves. What would we desire if we possessed the imp in the bottle? At a time when extraordinary lottery wins are in the news, this is an opera which must make us pause and question whether getting what we want will ever make us happy. The strangeness of the imp, characterised by glowing smoke swirling around the bottle and high tinkling notes from the orchestra wheedles its way into the consciousness of the audience as we realise that it represents not merely the desires of the characters but our own desires too. If we got what we wished, would we be content? Would we be happy?
Glasgow’s Theatre Royal sits at the top of Hope Street. This production asks everyone who sees it whether they could really bear to live existentially at the top of Hope Street, gaining their every desire just by wishing for it. Like the Midas myth of old, we know even as we watch one tragedy unfold after another that despite wanting happiness, so very many of us would like to try managing unfettered and out of control riches and power, falsely believing that somehow happiness will come our way with them.
An ambiguous ending nevertheless seemed satisfying as everyone seemed to spill out of the theatre with an opinion of what it had all meant. You can scarcely ask for more.
This is a brilliant new work that makes you think. It is spine tingling opera that everyone involved with can be supremely proud of.
(Photo : Bill Cooper)
For details of future performances and to buy tickets click here
For more details please see the Music Theatre of Wales website click here