Following it's world premiere at Opera Philadelphia in September, the much-hyped Breaking the Waves had its New York City debut at the Skirball Center at NYU last Friday night as part of the PROTOTYPE Festival. Going into it, I was skeptical—would the piece be a salacious shocker with nudity and profanity, or would it be a revelation? The answer: it is bafflingly not greater than the sum of its parts, despite exquisite composing and lyrical, if not virtuosic, singing.
As a disclaimer, I’ll share that I haven’t seen the movie. I felt that would actually be better, since I wanted to experience firsthand what I had heard would be a very powerful story. Operas should have powerful stories. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to remain confused for most of the performance, due at least in part to the stuck, postured direction by James Darrah.
The opera seemed most free in the little moments of joyful characterization allotted to the doomed protagonist Bess, brilliantly sung by Kiera Duffy, whose Scottish accent and paradoxical gamine naïveté were never a burden. Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek gift us with an all-male Greek chorus of sorts; it seemed Mr. Darrah could have left the posturing to them to highlight their contrast with the protagonists, a sort of ‘perspective of the masses’ versus that of the ‘other.’
That is not to say the piece was ineffective. It surely had shock value—Ms. Duffy was completely nude a handful of times, and her character’s husband, Jan, both bellowed and crooned by John Moore, was naked in enough positions to leave nothing to imagination. The nudity was obviously intended to be an important expository choice, but it felt gratuitous and gave us no insight about either character’s true desires. The inexplicable connection between the love interests was only more confusing as Jan exploited Bess’s kindness by encouraging her liaisons with every member of the chorus, accompanied by more nudity.
But, for all of the underwhelming parts, there were some impressive performances. Ms. Duffy is a true tour-de-force performer, and “Waves” offers a showcase for her abilities unlike any role except perhaps for the eponymous Lulu. Her facility is breathtaking, and her ability to completely assimilate into a character demands to be recognized by the opera community. If she is able to so thoroughly own a quirky contemporary role, I can only imagine how thrilling she would be in the standard repertoire.
As Jan, Moore offers a pleasant baritone. He began shakily, his vibrato unsteady, but grew confident as soon as he took his pants off. As written, his role didn’t require much acting, and it was disappointing not to understand the development of his romance with Bess. In the second and third acts, his voice crested beautifully.
The rest of the cast had uniformly appealing, out-of-the-box voices. As Bess’s friend Dodo, Eve Gigliotti sang with pathos, using her colorfully large sound to spin out nostalgia. Theodora Hanslowe made an impact with her small role as Bess’s mother. Matthew Curran and Marcus DeLoach offered affective contributions as Terry and the Minister, respectively.
The standout, however, was Dominic Armstrong as Dr. Richardson, a completely thankless role brought to life by an interesting artist. Mr. Armstrong used his sizable instrument to paint anguish and stoicism, cementing himself as the singular empathetic pillar of reason amongst orthodox hypocrites and hysterical idealists. His vocal writing often brought to mind Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes; what an interesting showcase that would be for Mr. Armstrong.
Grimes evidently was ringing in Ms. Mazzoli’s ears, since her homages to Britten were evident also in her choral writing and orchestral interludes. Her style is at once ethereal and terrestrial, showcasing overlapping violin harmonics with an electric guitar in full grunge. It works. That said, not one of Waves' musical vignettes easily come to mind; her writing is staunchly temporal.
The singers clearly felt supported by Julian Wachner’s sensitive conducting. He treated the chamber orchestra, thoughtfully rendered by Novus NY, as a choir, weaving their sound sans baton into the echoes onstage.
An overwhelming sense of collaboration was in the theater, but in the end, the director’s flawed vision may have kept Breaking the Waves from fully resonating. Still, you should absolutely check it out if you have the chance – it will be difficult to find another cast this effective.
More pics from September's Opera Philadelphia production here.