American composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek make a great team. Inspired by the Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves they have created an amazing, confronting, yet mystical opera, telling the same story but with refreshingly new insights. This Breaking the Waves opera is a most unusual love story of redemption, of Bess sacrificing her life that Jan might live.

Sydney Mancasola (Bess) © Andrew Beveridge
Sydney Mancasola (Bess)
© Andrew Beveridge

Breaking the Waves is set in a fishing village on the Isle of Skye inhabited by a dour, God-fearing community, a world inhabited by a simple young lass named Bess. Into it comes Jan, the outsider, a North Sea oil rig worker, who captures her heart and they marry. Injured at work, he becomes a quadriplegic. This unlocks a whole range of dilemmas and strained relationships. Director Tom Morris writes: “The opera is a kind of Passion: a tragedy of cross-purposes in which the community can see Bess’ profound compassion but cannot prevent itself from contributing to her destruction.”

Everything about this production is top shelf. The simple, powerful scenery comprised a series of monoliths on a revolving base allowing for seamless scene changes. Clever lighting effects were so subtle as to be unnoticeable. Soloists from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera have certainly mastered Mazzoli’s score, their powerfully evocative playing under conductor Stuart Stratford was engagingly expressive. The chorus of tenors and basses, whether as church elders, rig workers, the voice of God or seducers in waiting, had a beautifully blended and balanced symmetry. Soprano Sydney Mancasola sang magnificently as Bess McNeill, central to everything, a woman driven by the remarkable love for her husband which leads ultimately to her own tragic death. Fortunately the production provided surtitles as, from where I was sitting in the Stalls, the words of every soloist were mostly unintelligible. However Mancasola’s voice was remarkable, her ability to express her emotions amazing (and in this opera she is conflicted with so many confusing and complex choices). She remained on stage for most of the 150 minutes of the opera.

Duncan Rock (Jan) © Andrew Beveridge
Duncan Rock (Jan)
© Andrew Beveridge

I loved Wallis Giunta’s portrayal of Dodo, Bess’ sister-in-law and constant friend, another outsider. Her mellow mezzo conveyed the feel of a warm, caring person. Both she and Mancasola projected a rather magnetic presence. Adding immeasurably to the exceptionalism of this production was the performance of Duncan Rock as Bess’ husband, Jan. While he spent most of the second and third acts on a paraplegic bed, he was core to the story. Rock was convincing in his unfaltering love for Bess, even when, drugged up and with clouded mind, he urged her to have sex with other men since she couldn’t do so with him, maybe a ruse to set her free. His lovely rich tenor voiced his authentic care and affection and his depth of feeling was convincing, especially when, grieving her demise, he sang “Dear God, I thank you for the greatest gift.”

The paradox of Breaking the Waves was that the more depraved Bess’ sexual activities became, the more Jan recovered from paralysis. Act 1 concluded when, after her first adulterous encounter, the paraplegic Jan suddenly sat upright in his bed. Finally, after she was abused and violated on the “red ship” and died from her injuries, Jan recovered his power to walk (shades of Wagner’s Elisabeth dying so that Tannhäuser might be liberated from his Venusberg addiction). Soprano Orla Boylan, with a Turandot style voice and manner, excelled in the difficult role of Bess’ strict, unbending mother (redeeming herself in the end by tenderly and Pietà-like grieving at the feet of her dead daughter). Tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas, as the doctor who treated paralysed Jan professionally, and emotionally deprived Bess more threateningly (she had, after all, unsubtly tried to seduce him), conveyed to perfection the impersonal and uninvolved nature expected of a doctor from this confined community. He did, though, finally confess, with touching pathos, to ultimately having to describe Bess as “good”. The pastor, Freddy Tong, as the Church Councilman, had a notably rich bass voice, that blended and contrasted beautifully with the well-tweaked male choir.

Orla Boylan (Bess' mother) and Sydney Mancasola (Bess) © Andrew Beveridge
Orla Boylan (Bess' mother) and Sydney Mancasola (Bess)
© Andrew Beveridge

There is no weak spot in this absorbing opera. Mazzoli’s music captures the bleakness of the island and the community, the tenderness of love between Bess and Jan, the depravity of the “red ship” and all it stood for, and finally the liberation of freedom expressed in the ringing of the drowned church bells. Vavrek’s libretto faithfully crystallises von Trier’s film, adding a richness and clarity to the inner strength of its heroine. Every person from Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures must be lauded for the absorbing presentation of this remarkable piece of theatre.

*****