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"Breaking the Waves" at Opera Philadelphia

By Steven Pisano

20160920-DSC_7171(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Sometimes art can depict the most repulsive aspects of the human condition, and still be deemed successful. Such is the case with Missy Mazzoli's new chamber opera Breaking the Waves, which is receiving its world premiere this week by Opera Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center. Billed as a love story of unparalleled self-sacrifice and divine devotion, Breaking the Waves is actually a story of perversion, misogyny, and cruelty.

Based on the 1996 film by Lars Von Trier, the story takes place in a remote and religiously repressed village in the Scottish Highlands. Jan, a worker on an offshore oil rig and Bess, a meek, mentally unstable young woman who is deeply depressed after the death of a brother, are in love and eager to marry. The local church elders do not approve of Bess marrying an outsider, fostering an oppressive atmosphere similar to the Puritan Boston of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or the pre-WWI Germany of Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon. Dressed head-to-toe in black but with their pants legs encrusted in mud and salt (a great touch by costumer Chrisi Karvonides), the elders constantly remind Bess of her “responsibilities” as a wife—meaning that women should obey men, even if what men ask of them is reprehensible. So saith the Word.


After some brief scenes showing the virile Jan introducing the virgin Bess to the pleasures of conjugal love, a terrible accident on the oil rig leaves Jan paralyzed and confined to a hospital bed. In a state of despair, Bess rushes to him but sits off at a distance, both devastated and repelled by his disability. Selfishly, she looks heavenward and asks: why would God, to whom she has been faithful all her life, suddenly do this to her?

Then, in the startling narrative turn that drives the opera, Jan tells Bess to have sex with other men. Bess recoils, saying that she loves him and that she is resigned to being without him physically. Jan responds that his request is not intended to make her happy but to make him happy. With religious fervor, Bess deludes herself into thinking that sex with strangers will somehow make Jan heal physically. But, things soon spiral out of control, until finally Bess is raped and murdered by sailors on a ship offshore. On one level, her death comes across as a transcendent experience: a martyr who surrenders her own life to save her husband’s. But, it is also tough to escape the conclusion that Bess is a lost soul, manipulated by her husband onto a path of self-destruction. 

20160920-DSC_7336Mazzoli’s music is richly psychological, scoring each character in arousing and vivid patterns while summoning the power of the North Sea and the harsh majesty of the Highlands. At the same time, Mazzoli shows great restraint in depicting the emotions and moral complexities of the story (set to a libretto by Royce Vavrek), intensifying the unease produced by juxtaposing jarring sex scenes with moments of tortured religiosity. With this work, Mazzoli is solidly on the map of opera composers to watch.

Soprano Keira Duffy gives a ravishing performance, taking possession of Bess as if the opera were written expressly for her. Duffy immerses herself in the character so completely that I found myself incredulous that the beaming, beautiful singer on stage receiving her well-earned applause could possibly be the same grim, quietly tortured soul I just watched for two-and-a-half hours. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Breaking the Waves without Duffy in it.

Most of the other characters are plug-and-play, including baritone John Moore (Jan) who, despite his strong voice, spends as much time gurgling in his hospital bed as he does singing arias. In a minor role, tenor David Portillo gives a first-rate turn as Bess’s doctor. Steven Osgood conducted the small orchestra with assured, confident strokes. 20160920-DSC_7517Adam Rigg's jagged set effectively captures the craggy Scottish coastline while also manifesting the broken and uncertain moral footing that many of the characters are on. Above the stage rise two high, curved screens on which projections by Adam Larsen are displayed. These include standard projections such as those depicting the oil rig, but most expressively make use of abstract shapes and inkblots which seem to indicate the stains of sin and tears of God.

Performances of Breaking the Waves continue at the Kimmel Center through this Saturday; click here for information on tickets. (The production comes to New York in January as part of this season’s Prototype Festival.)20160920-DSC_7636

(More photos can be found here.)