Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves remains a controversial work. The narrative, and in particular its treatment of the central female character, is genuinely disturbing.
A few years ago the American composer Missy Mazzoli took on the challenge of turning it into an opera. With Royce Vavrek’s libretto sticking closely to the movie, the result received its premiere in Philadelphia in 2016, when Opera News hailed it as “among the best 21st-century American operas yet produced”. Now it arrives in Europe in a new staging by Tom Morris.
The material is contentious to say the least. In order to please her disabled husband, the character of Bess agrees to offer herself sexually to strangers – an appallingly dangerous activity that leads to her downfall within her own strictly religious community and eventually to her murder.
In both the film and the opera, this act connects in some apparently mystical way to her husband’s recovery; in the final scene, a kind of divine blessing seems to be accorded her corpse.
Reactions to this scenario, and in particular to its scenes of sexually motivated violence, are likely to differ, but there are times when it is hard not to quell a distinct feeling of unease at the sheer perversity of the events portrayed.
There’s also an obvious sense in which Bess is yet another in a long line of women, in opera as in other genres, who sacrifice themselves to save a man; and while such stories can engender the profoundest sympathy, it’s hard not to feel that there are other exemplars of female experience that could be profitably explored by creative figures in our own time.
That said, the commitment of this staging’s entire cast is hard to fault. Soprano Sydney Mancasola is vocally and physically unstinting in attempting to realise the troubled figure of Bess. She’s valiantly supported by Wallis Giunta as her caring sister-in-law Dodo, Elgan Llyr Thomas as the doctor who tries to intervene to save Bess, Duncan Rock as her stricken husband Jan, and Susan Bullock as the mother who abandons her to her fate.
Vavrek’s text is expertly crafted and Mazzoli’s score shows considerable technical skill, her choral and orchestral writing offering a wide range of dramatic colour; but there are few places where the music seizes and holds the attention as it must. Scottish Opera’s music director Stuart Stratford nevertheless maintains impeccable musical standards in the pit.
Aided by the sophistication of Richard Howell’s lighting, Soutra Gilmour’s sets suggest the rocky island where the action takes place, the oil rig where Jan works, and the ship where Bess is eventually attacked, while Morris’ direction is eminently clear and purposeful.