Current Issue #488

Festival Review:
Breaking The Waves

Sydney Mancasola and Duncan Rock in Breaking The Waves
James Glossop
Sydney Mancasola and Duncan Rock in Breaking The Waves

Complex questions of love, morality and faith come crashing down in this Scottish Opera adaptation of Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking The Waves.

First impressions count. And most especially in contemporary opera. Opera audience can be a binary thinking lot. If a new opera experience is not to their liking (or thinking) then it’s not unusual to hear the phrase, “oh, I don’t like contemporary opera”. It’s a generalisation that comes in part from the particularities of the first impression syndrome, or as a result of experiencing a not so great production.  The judgement on the ‘contemporary’ opera becomes confused. The production is not distinguished from the music.

So, thank goodness for Tom Morris’s new direction of Missy Mazzoli’s (composer) and Royce Vavrek’s (librettist) 2016 opera Breaking the Waves. And, thank goodness for Adelaide Festival’s Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy for their vision to collaborate with Opera Ventures, Scottish Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique in bringing this production to Australia. There’s a back story here. Mazzoli’s/Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves – based on Lars von Trier 1996 film – was first produced and premiered at Opera Philadelphia before a New York season. In James Darrah’s shock valued production, audiences left the theatre devastated by the overwhelming extremities – explicit beyond explicit, nudity and violence.

In this new Scottish Opera led production, Morris stands on different soil – he takes a more philosophical, humanistic view. For those not familiar with the Academy Award nominated film, Breaking the Waves tells the harrowing tale of Bess’s deep love and sexual attraction for her husband Jan, a rigger. When an accident leaves Jan paralysed, the incapacitated Jan, asks his wife to seek new lovers and to bring those stories to his hospital bed – essentially to save him. Bess’s selfless acts eventually ends in her tragedy, in a story that contemplates themes of goodness, judgement, and commitment, interrogating how lives can be influenced and derailed by church and society.

James Glossop

Morris’s vision relies on the sum of his parts. This production is a gift of casting and ensemble singing. As Bess, American soprano Sydney Mancasola is a revelation. Her performance is a heart wrenching, musico-theatrical tour de force. The vocal accolades extend to Duncan Rock’s nuanced muscularity as Jan Nyman, Wallis Giunta’s steadfast and empathic portrayal of Dodo, Orla Boylan presiding warmth as the mother, and Elgan Llyr Thomas’s incisive tenor.

The design team’s virtue is their collaboration. Soutra Gilmour’s single structure set suggesting the imposing pillars of institutions depends on Will Duke’s Projection designs and Richard Howell’s lighting.

In Scottish Opera’s poetic rendering of the work, we hear the expressive ingenuity of Mazzoli’s commanding score. Her vocal lines are elegant. They never unnecessarily reach for extremes for dramatic purpose. The constant inventiveness of her orchestrations and countermelodies never tire, because she threads her ideas with cohesive harmonics and melodic progressions. In this new production the revisions and edits of the score – such as the expansion of the strings and the expansion of spoken text assist the dramaturgy.

But this opera runs true to the film’s narration and audiences should not expect a melodramatic rendering. For certain, this “operatic” experience unfolds in the frames of film dramaturgy and for this reason will appeal to wider audiences.

Breaking The Waves was performed at the Festival Theatre on Friday 13 March

Xenia Hanusiak

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