A cover version of a classic is a risky business, yet the rewards can be great if the new version embodies the spirit of the original yet sings its own tune. Breaking the Waves is a classic 1996 art-house film written and directed by Lars von Trier, revisited 20 years on by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek in their new opera, acclaimed in America and receiving its European premiere by Scottish Opera in an international co-production at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill) © James Glossop
Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill)
© James Glossop

Set on Skye in a community under the authority of a dour Calvinist church, this is the story of Bess, emotionally fragile after the death of her brother who meets Jan, an oil-rig worker and an outsider. Despite misgivings, they marry but wedded bliss is cut short when Jan saves his friend Terry in a rig accident, but is almost killed as a consequence. Bess has conversations with God, but somehow believes Jan’s accident is her fault as she had prayed for his return. Jan is paralysed in a hospital bed, but makes the shocking suggestion to Bess to find other lovers, placing her at the centre of a crisis of belief and loyalties. Advice comes from her mother, her sister-in-law Dodo and Dr Richardson, who is in charge of Jan’s care, convinced that he will not walk again. Bess believes that by taking lovers she will help Jan recover, her expulsion from the church only fuelling more extreme encounters, with disastrous results.

Playing tricks with symmetry, designer Soutra Gilmour used thirteen graduated monoliths placed on a revolve, amazing video projection designs from Will Duke and dramatic lighting from Richard Howell transforming us to a grey island skyscape, a wooden church interior, an oil-rig with Forth Bridge red lattice girders and more locations in between. The limitless possibilities of the set allowed the many quick scenes in the first act in particular to work seamlessly under Tom Morris’ tight direction.

Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill), Duncan Rock (Jan Nyman) and ensemble © James Glossop
Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill), Duncan Rock (Jan Nyman) and ensemble
© James Glossop

Scottish Opera’s orchestra, reduced to chamber size, tackled Mazzoli’s luminous score brilliantly with detailed commitment, conductor Stuart Stratford very supportive of his singers. Musical influences were certainly Britten-esque, and I was reminded on several occasions of Turn of the Screw miasmas, yet Mazzoli’s music is very much her own. An electric guitar, piano synthesiser and melodica added strange colours, and Jay Allen was a busy man with an expansive array of percussion. Chorusmaster Susannah Wapshott can be proud of the very finely sung chorus of twelve men which anchor the production, playing many roles from stern church elders, red boiler-suited rig workers, and an evil sexually deviant ship’s crew. They play an integral role as the voices that Bess hears in her head which drive this uncomfortable and challenging tale.

Susan Bullock gave a strong performance as the conflicted Mother, torn between her faith and wayward daughter whom she admonishes for her sexual forwardness and finally abandons. Wallis Giunta’s Dodo brought an outsider’s perspective, a hospital nurse to Jan and a sympathetic friend and adviser to Bess, her lovely mezzo central to the drama and a compelling stage presence. American soprano Sydney Mancasola gave a towering performance, barely off the stage throughout, her physical journey from vulnerable God-fearing girl through a series of increasingly dangerous on-stage sexual encounters completely wrapped up in her misplaced religious convictions. The strong trio of women tended to overshadow Duncan Rock’s assured baritone as Jan and Byron Jackson, his friend Terry, with Elgan Llŷr Thomas’ passionately sung Dr Richardson trying to make sense of things.

Wallis Giunta (Dodo McNeill) and Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill) © James Glossop
Wallis Giunta (Dodo McNeill) and Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill)
© James Glossop

I loved the film in the cinema when it came out, and was glad that I saw it again just before seeing this production. While Mazzoli’s music gets under the skin of the claustrophobic island community and into the mind of Bess splendidly, and Vavrek’s libretto is mostly faithful to Von Trier, I felt momentum was lost after a dramatic first act, only picking up again as Bess becomes more unhinged and meets her grisly fate. Both film and opera answer Bess’ prayer that paralysed Jan would somehow walk again, and both have endings open to interpretation, here Mazzoli turning up the emotion as Bess dies and goes on to the next place.

Breaking the Waves is a brave but harrowing opera in a smart production, finely sung and played. Like the film, it deserves to be seen as it raises all sorts of questions about manipulation of vulnerable people and the response of communities that are supposed to care and guide them. A successful cover version? I think both stand up powerfully in their own ways.

****1