OPERA NEWS - Breaking the Waves
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In Review > North America

Breaking the Waves

Opera Philadelphia

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Soprano Kiera Duffy as Bess in James Darrah's production of Breaking the Waves at Opera Philadelphia
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
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Duffy and John Moore as Jan
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

OPERA PHILADELPHIA'S SEASON OPENED with pronounced success on September 22, with the commissioned world-premiere of Missy Mazzoli's much-awaited full-length chamber opera, Breaking the Waves. Based on Lars von Trier's landmark 1996 film, the opera, tautly led by Steven Osgood, held the crowd at the intimate Perelman Theater pretty much spellbound. Mazzoli's music lived up to the hype her work has engendered: Breaking the Waves stands among the best twenty-first-century American operas yet produced. Director James Darrah and a uniformly fine cast, led by Kiera Duffy and John Moore shared in the acclaim; so did librettist Royce Vavrek, who deserves credit for initiating the project but whose contribution, clever in places, I found more equivocal.

In brief: Bess, a young native of the Isle of Skye, defies her rigid congregation to marry an outsider—the Norwegian Jan, a worker on the offshore oil rig. Their deep sexual connection leads to tragedy when Bess holds her prayer for Jan's swift return from the rig responsible for an accident that completely paralyzes him. Having been told that a wife must follow her husband's will, she accedes to his request that she have sex with other men and tell him about it to sustain his connection to life. Excommunicated for her visible transgressions, Bess eventually courts death, believing it will cure Jan. It does; he buries her at sea, far from her community's disapproval.

Osgood's fifteen-person band (including both harp and electric guitar) played superbly, with special eloquence from pianist Linda Henderson. Mazzoli effectively folds in pre-recorded music at several junctures with herself at keyboard. Mazzoli sets text very responsively and comprehensibly. One of the many hurdles Duffy cleared with flying colors in an absolutely spectacular performance was maintaining clarity over a wide range when using a convincing Scottish brogue—an accent shared only by her disapproving mother (the steady, effective Patricia Schuman) and the sneering Minister (the aptly chilling Marcus DeLoach). The Norwegian Jan and the other "outsiders," Bess's widowed, sympathetic sister-in-law Dodo and an insightful Dr. Richardson, whom Bess tries to seduce, sang here with American accents. The music throughout evokes mood and events with well-chosen instrumentation and layered textures. Understandably, Britten furnished inspiration, including coloristic and formal details (slides out of Death in Venice, foggy traces of Grimes and Budd).

Tenor David Portillo's graceful legato lyricism and sterling diction proved outstanding in Richardson's melismatic lines, which might have been written for Peter Pears. As Jan Nyman, Moore—a fine, straightforward vocalist—performed very well, with notable ability to float leavening his dark lyric baritone. Darrah and his leads managed to provide the most successful simulation of passion—and also the least gratuitous use of nudity—I've recently seen on an opera stage. Rich-voiced mezzo Eve Gigliotti deserves special commendation as the brave Dodo: she's an incisive actress who makes every move and intonation tell. But the sound that underlaid the whole evening's success was the enduring purity of Duffy's soprano, soaring on high. Duffy offered dead-on attacks on many stratospheric phrases, uncanny ease at alternating low-voiced parlando passages as her internalized Voice of God, and accuracy in sounding peculiar intervals.

While the drama properly rested on Darrah's direction and the charged interactions of his gifted (and in Duffy and Moore's cases, quite daring) cast, Darrah's design team did well. Chrisi Karvonides deftly supplied clothes realistically evoking lower middle class 1970s deprivation and stylized uniforms of heavy black suits with rain- and mud-splashed patterned trousers and shoes for the unforgiving congregation. Adam Rigg's brutalist metal/planks set—apt especially for the scenes on the oil rig—interacted superbly with Adam Larsen's projections, which alternated impressionistic black-and-white and color evocations of Scottish topography. Pablo Santiago lit the whole with sensitivity.

At his most creative—as in David T. Little’s Dog Days—Vavrek has done excellent work, but in Breaking the Waves detail and nuance of both character and Skye's everyday existence are in short supply, left to Darrah and the cast to evoke when possible. Vavrek’s libretto suffers from a few two many phrasing repetitions—such as "golden heart" and the lovers' map/body metaphor, effective as they initially prove. The second act seems five minutes too long, the third more like ten. Mazzoli and Vavrek might consider tightening up some of the “public" sequences as the tragedy unfolds; more specifically, Jan's final aria seems verbally rooted in New Music Theater cliché rather than the stark, concise truths the opera manages elsewhere. As in the film, the narrative's final (miraculous) musical effect is a stunner.  —David Shengold 

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