Danish film director Lars von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy elevated him to international success. Breaking the Waves (1996) was one of the trio and the “golden heart” at its heart is the unsophisticated Bess McNeill. Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s 2016 opera is based on the movie. It is now at the Adelaide Festival in Scottish Opera’s European premiere production, directed by Tom Morris, first seen at 2019’s Edinburgh Festival.
Sydney Mancasola as Bess and cast members. Photograph © James Glossop
This Breaking the Waves is a very fine reworking of the harrowing, non-musical original and it’s arguable that Mazzoli’s insightful, sometimes contrarian score actually makes it even more toughly dramatic. In the eyes of the Calvinist church elders of Skye, where the story is set, Mazzoli could well be considered “froward” – not a misprint but from old Norse and meaning “a person difficult to deal with, contrary”. It’s how they describe Bess and this young woman is naturally the target of their ire.
The role of Bess is filled – brilliantly – by America rising star soprano Sydney Mancasola. Moreover there isn’t a weak link in the cast, male chorus or orchestra. Bess’s worst sin, aside from being a bit fey, is her love for an outsider, Jan Nyman (charismatic Australian baritone Duncan Rock). He’s an oil rig worker who we would now recognise as a Fly-Flo – fly-in/fly-out – and is therefore doubly dubious. The island’s patriarchs are in a knot from the opening moments and little improves across two hours 50 minutes and three acts.
Bess is in a fragile mental state after the death of her brother, whose widow Dodo (glorious mezzo Wallis Giunta) is her best friend and support. Bess has been hospitalised in the past for unspecified treatment and her mother (a powerful Orla Boylan) threatens her with further incarceration if she doesn’t buck up. All Bess wants is to be loved and to love Jan; and to have him quit the rigs and stay on land with her. As a military wife might say, it’s an unreasonable demand. But this is the 1970s, fly-flo was a novel concept and unlike military personnel, there was no thought or care given to families by the oil companies. Bess is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wallis Giunta and Sydney Mancasola. Photograph © James Glossop
Jan returns to the rig after their wedding, they stay in touch via payphone. All this and more takes place on a striking, angular set of monoliths that change shape and use on a slow revolve (design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting by Richard Howell, video projection design by Will Duke). Directed by Tom Morris, the action flows around and in and out of these dour structures as they become church, hospital, oil rig platform, and menacing night spaces.
As Bess mourns the absence of her love, her mother reminds her that “women endure”. The black-attired matron is as indestructible as the granite-like columns of the set and Bess has little chance of empathy. She prays to an equally implacable God for Jan’s safe return and He doesn’t warn her to be careful what she wishes for.
An accident on the rig sends Jan back to Skye neurologically injured and paralysed. Dr Richardson (ravishing tenor Elgar Llŷr Thomas) befriends Bess and helps her cope with Jan’s anger and her own unhappiness; “sadness is not an illness” he says. Yet in the everyday, Bess is like a pinball – bashed and pinged from one trajectory to another, knowing little kindness other than from Dodo.
Illuminating this dark narrative, Mazzoli’s score is richly varied with gliding horns, prominent percussion, electric guitar and sonorous basses and strings. It’s a chamber orchestra – soloists from the Scottish Opera under the baton of Stuart Stratford – and full of colour and emotion. It’s often dramatically opposed to the libretto and all the more effective for that. The male chorus – whether churchily arrogant or bare-chested and threatening – is aurally and histrionically superb (chorus master: Susannah Wapshott).
Photograph © James Glossop
Jan’s wish for Bess to take male lovers in order that he might experience the “love making” by proxy is without doubt a recipe for several kinds of disaster and the way Bess is buffeted by the demands of her community, her husband and her conscience is pitiful and moving to witness. Sydney Mancasola is rarely off-stage and the work revolves around her – dramatically and musically – and she is simply breathtaking in her Australian debut.
Anyone paying attention in the opening moments, however, will have worked out how this tragedy ends. Nevertheless, it’s neither obvious nor clearcut and more effective, humane and credible than the Von Trier original
Yet Breaking the Waves is not flawless and never was. Ironically, it’s a broken-backed drama – sagging noticeably in the middle – but the power of the music and performances revives it towards a devastating finale.
Breaking the Waves has one more performance at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre on March 15