Breaking the Waves, Missy Mazzoli's new opera premiered by Opera Philadelphia, is a work of sheer emotional power that combines strong music, effective staging and, above all, committed performances. Based on a film by Lars von Trier, Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek succeeded in creating a gripping drama in an insular Calvinist community in Scotland whose religious and psychological oppression results in a tragic life and death of the heroine, Bess. While the second half of the opera could use some editing in length, and the opera’s ending unfortunately managed to sugarcoat the savagery of the story, this is an important work that leaves the audience both exhausted and contemplative.

John Moore (Jan Nyman) and Kiera Duffy (Bess McNeill) © Dominic M Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
John Moore (Jan Nyman) and Kiera Duffy (Bess McNeill)
© Dominic M Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

At the core of the success of the evening was Kiera Duffy in the role of Bess. From her first quiet appearance on stage before the music began, Duffy embodied a trouble young woman who falls in love with, and marries, an outsider: a Norwegian oil rig worker Jan, whose near-fatal accident sets in motion a tragic disintegration of Bess’ physical and spiritual being. Duffy captured Bess’ happiness, sexual awakening, anxiety, despair and resolution with her arresting physicality and committed singing. Her clear and delicate soprano had no problem scaling the high tessitura of the role. She exhibited an impressive vocal range, as when she sang the voice of God in her head with a low Sprechstimme.  

Supporting her as dashing husband Jan was John Moore. His resonant, warm baritone was a perfect vehicle for the outsider who attracts a devout and sheltered young woman. Moore’s clear diction was exemplary even when he was singing softly on his back as he lay gravely injured. Tenor David Portillo as Dr Richardson brought his penetrating timbre to portray a sympathetic ally. Another standout was Eve Gigliotti as Bess’ sister-in-law, Dodo, the most complex character of the opera besides Bess. Gigliotti used her sumptuous mezzo to describe her ambivalence as an outsider who remained in the community and yet retained a more balanced attitude. Zachary James was a strong voiced Terry, Jan’s friend from the rig, and Patricia Schuman sang well as a conventional but well-meaning mother.

Patricia Schuman (Bess' monther) © Dominic M Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
Patricia Schuman (Bess' monther)
© Dominic M Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

Special mention should be made of the excellent chorus of twelve male singers. Acting as church elders, oil rig workers, the voice of God and townspeople, their ubiquitous presence anchored the opera both physically and vocally. I wondered if their number, twelve, may have been an allusion to Christ’s twelve disciples at his Last Supper. The chorus sang in striking unison and yet their strong individual voices came through in the intimate Perelman Theater. Mazzoli’s musical language is modern, yet her vocal lines were often lyrical. She reserves more dissonant passages for orchestral transitions; the use of (sometimes unconventional) percussion, was effective in creating special effects. Steve Osgood led a small orchestra of excellent musicians with his characteristic vigor and precision.

James Darrah's staging was simple, with angled and raked planks and platforms the only props. Projections were in heavy use, shown on two large backdrops serving as a screen. The ocean waves and oil rigs, as well as more abstract images, helped the audience to use their imaginations. Evocative colors were effective in creating appropriate moods of the characters and scenes. There was considerable nudity on stage, but it was not excessive; on stage violence was discreet.

Kiera Duffy (Bess) © Dominic M Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
Kiera Duffy (Bess)
© Dominic M Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

The first act was the strongest in its succinct and taut storytelling. We were drawn into the fragile psyche of Bess as she was married, experiencing her first sexual happiness, and bereft with her husband’s departure. Other characters were delineated with distinction and clarity. Musical lines alternating abstract and concrete worked to heighten the narrative. The second and third acts were less effective as they dragged a little, and the libretto became predictable and conventional. Recurrent musical devices, such as Bess’ mental dialogue with God and her aria “My body is a map”, became repetitive and one longed for development of fresh musical themes. The final scene with Jan, Dodo and Terry listening to distant and non-existent bells, as well as Jan’s final aria for Bess, while eliciting some tears from the audience, seemed an anticlimactic ending to the tragedy that unfolded. It was as if Lulu was given a proper funeral. Bess’ tragedy did not deserve an easy absolution and redemption.