Composer Missy Mazzoli’s opera Breaking the Waves was a showcase piece of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival and came to the Adelaide Festival for just two performances in an Australian exclusive. It is always a Festival highlight to see a full original cast, in this case including the orchestra and chorus of Scottish Opera.
Based on the 1996 film of the same name by film-cult favourite Lars von Trier, Breaking the Waves is a grim story of love and lust, power and repression, set in an isolated Calvanist community on Skye, a remote Scottish island ruled by a harsh religiosity. These are people who condemn their dead to hell rather than wish them well on their journey to heaven.
The tragic heroine is Bess McNeill, who falls deeply in love with Jan Nyman, an oil rig worker and an outsider. The rig is a macho world where “we breathe oil, dream oil, shit oil”. The relationship immediately puts Bess at odds with the strict church patriarchy, who believe no good can come of it.
Bess is a complex character with a troubled past and a domineering mother whose only idea of comfort is to tell her daughter that “women endure”. Needless to say, she has much to endure and comes to a very grim end after almost three hours of opera.
The central roles are well cast. Popular American soprano Sydney Mancasola is a passionate and engaging lead who gives Bess an equal measure of determination and desperation. She sings beautifully and moves well with a delicate physicality that hints at her emotional fragility.
Edinburgh-born Australian baritone Duncan Rock lives up to his name, being strong and powerful as the utterly awful Jan. Wallis Giunta and Orla Boylan are compelling as Bess’s sister-in-law and mother.
Mazzoli’s score is wide-ranging, taking elements from many styles and themes, not all from the operatic tradition. There are some impressive moments but overall the music didn’t convey enough of the dark emotional tension.
Down in the pit, Scottish Opera music director Stuart Stratford led the large chamber ensemble of the Scottish Opera orchestra with flair. Yet despite all the clanging and twanging and plucking and orchestral dissonance, the score ultimately is repetitive rather than memorable.
Librettist Royce Vavrek collaborated with Missy Mazzoli in taking Breaking the Waves from film to the opera stage. It is here that some of the weaknesses really appear. There is little poetry in the libretto which, at times, is just dull. It plods along, in a serious and dour tone, never really harnessing the great evocative power of language.
The English surtitles, surprisingly helpful despite the opera being sung in English, are set a little too high above the stage so you have to take your eyes off the action to read them.
Everything takes place on an impressive set made of monoliths used to striking effect on a slow revolve designed by Soutra Gilmour. This stark and imposing background becomes both the setting and the witness to the tragedy that unfolds.
Director Tom Morris makes the set work well as almost another character. However, the staging of Jan’s terrible accident on the oil rig, the pivotal moment of the story, is disappointing in its dramatic impact.
Overall, Breaking the Waves is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The “unreal” quality of the film, probably best described as magic realism, has been lost in the translation to the opera stage.
Sex and violence, love and lust, are no newcomers to opera – indeed, it’s the very stuff most of them are made of – so that’s not enough. We need to see more of the inner self to really feel for the characters and share their suffering.
Mazzoli and Vavrek had a wonderful opportunity here to do something different, to perhaps subvert the operatic tradition of a wayward woman getting her gruesome come-uppance at the hands of men. It seems a shame they didn’t display a little more bravery in their story-telling.
Breaking the Waves was presented at the Festival Theatre as part of the 2020 Adelaide Festival program.
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