All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The church-dominated north Scottish coastal town in which Bess McNeill resides in so strict and pinched, it looks askance at undevout foreigners and continues to refer to Bess as McNeill after her marriage to a Norwegian named Jan Nyman, who is skeptical about religion and earns the undisguised disapproval of Bess’s neighbors, including her mother. Life is Skye is difficult for women. Their men are absent for a long time at work on ships or oil rigs that take them to the middle of the Atlantic for extended periods. Following Bess’s marriage, she will not see Jan for a month. Besides, as Bess’s mother says, a woman’s lot being one of waiting, she is not accepted as full member of the über-pious congregation and is told, upon marriage, she is the property of her husband and must obey everything he says to the letter. Even when the church elders, the men who remain in Skye, hate him the way they despise Jan. To give an example of just how unforgiving these elders can be, “Breaking the Waves,” a world premiere opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek based on the groundbreaking 1996 Lars von Trier film, shows them declaring a couple of deceased parishioners as “sinners” and sternly consigning their departed souls to hell.
Bess is already an object of the elders’ suspicion. She was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown when her brother was killed and is on medication to control her moods. The only one who can comfort her is her late brother’s wife, a foreigner to Skye like Jan, who loves Bess tenderly and unconditionally, in the manner of an older sister,
Bess discovers real love when she meets Jan on one of his leaves from the rig that sits in the Irish Sea. We meet her as she expressing this love. At first, as played by the generally remarkable Kiera Duffy — such a pure lyrical voice that ranges from soprano heights to appropriately eerie tones that seem to pass contralto into tenor — Bess seems more earnest and resolute than passionate when speaking of her love for Jan. You see sincerity but wonder where love’s young joy and ardor are. Then, you realize Bess is describing her love to the skeptical elders. She wouldn’t be able to show her full emotions and might be accused of being lustful or relapsing to her pathologically nervous state. Understanding these factors in retrospect heightens appreciation, already quite abundant, for Duffy’s acting skills.
Full display of emotion will be an occasional but ongoing concern in James Darrah’s production of “Breaking the Waves” for Opera Philadelphia. There are times when Mazzoli’s music swells or becomes warningly ominous, but the feelings on stage stay neuter or by the book. I call this opera-itis, letting text, situation, or music substitute for full dramatic verity in a scene or moment.
In spite of a marvelous performance from Duffy, and truly great work by John Moore as Jan and the brilliant Eve Gigliotti as Bess’s sister-in-law, Dodo, the story often does the work you’d like to see reinforced by closer, more personal, more passionate acting. You realize and react to all that occurs in “Breaking the Waves,” but some of the emotion or suspense could have been enhanced and gone further. Bess’s initial declaration of love for Jan is given delayed context and structure that informs and explains its cutting emotional power by a quarter. Other scenes do not. Including some crucial ones.
Jan is injured in a rig accident, nobly injured while saving a fellow worker’s, his best friend’s, life. Yet.so much is going on around Darrah’s stage, you don’t see Jan’s heroism and possible sacrifice, only the accident. Duffy’s reaction as Bess hearing about Jan seems to be somewhat stifled. He has been portrayed, in poignant impressionistic strokes, as a man who won her attention and affection while other men couldn’t and as someone Bess deeply and genuinely loves, yet the first hearing on Jan’s possibly fatal accident and the first sight on him, respirator and tubes in place, barely gets tinge of difference and, therefore, has diminished effect. It is part of the plot, one that moves us, but not a scene, in this production, that stirs us to pity, concern, or empathy. It’s cold and comme il faut, a surprise considering other moments when emotion seemed immediate and rife. For instance, when Bess, following the rather misogynistic vows imposed by her church, lets us see, via Duffy, both her long-endured repression and ardor for Jan, by insisting he consummate their marriage in the church’s small washroom. Even before she can take off her gown, which Vavrek’s book tells us has been bloodied, and Jan can do nothing more than unfasten his fly in time to accommodate her.
This seesaw of intensity and matter-of-factness in “Breaking the Waves’s” weighty moments makes one wonder why Darrah’s production cannot be more dramatically consistent. It doesn’t take away from involvement in Vavrek or von Trier’s story or our caring for Bess and Jan and wanting matters to work out in a way that seem unlikely and are destined to be tragic or sorrowful to those who remember von Trier’s film, which Vavrek follows pretty closely, his challenge being putting words to so many passages von Trier conveys in silence.
There are some matters Vavrek can clarify better. You don’t realize until late in the opera that Dodo are Bess are related. There’s an early lyric about losing a brother and a husband, but you don’t tie this to Bess and Dodo and realize the brother and husband are the same person, and Dodo is Bess’s sister-in-law. You hear Dodo is not from Skye as Bess speaks to the elders about Jan, and you hear Dodo talk about one of her land’s traditions as she makes a speech on behalf of the bride at Bess and Jan’s wedding, but you never learn exactly where Dodo is from.
Does it matter in the long run? No. It’s Dodo’s friendship and care of Bess that counts. But these details become nagging sources of curiosity that cling in one’s mind. Better for Vavrek to supply the information that to generate wonder that doesn’t impinge on the mechanics of the script or the emotional strength of the production, especially with Gigliotti playing Dodo, that to leave such simply dispatchable exposition hanging.
Now that I’ve taken to specify where Darrah’s generally fine production can be improved, let’s go into its many and more laudable areas of excellence that range from some magnificent singing to Mazzoli’s evocative score and Adam Larsen’s amazingly symbolic projections on Adam Rigg’s rustic oceanside set.
Vavrek and Mazzoli combine to make “Breaking the Waves” a compelling, commentating tale of love, devotion, and individuality in the face of rigid societal strictures predicated upon piously observed religious principles. Some moments in Darrah’s production can be stronger, but Vavrek’s verbal themes, enhanced by Mazzoli’s lush and precisely right musical lines, keep you engrossed in the gloomily heartbreaking tale von Trier created and Vavrek spins.
Hope, despair, conformity, and defiance combine in a way that is rare for any literarily work. “Breaking the Waves” is unique in the way it depicts faith, its implications, and its power. Vavrek’s libretto constantly refers to the power one possesses and the delusion it can cause, yet also draws crucially on persistence in faith, belief in miracles, and most peculiar of all, trust in pronouncements and promises one credits to a deity but which clearly come from one’s own impulsive, reassuring reverie. It is the dialogues Bess has with God, vocalized by Duffy in impressively deep and surprising tones that drive and illuminate the more bizarre and almost mystical parts of Vavrek/von Trier’s narrative, and that keep you on your toes guessing whether Bess borders on madness or is by far the most uncompromisingly devout Christian in Skye.
“Breaking the Waves” is about a lot, and Vavrek covers it, Mazzoli and Larsen providing tremendous texture in all instances.
First is the repression. The curtain opens with the elders, grimly dressed by Chrisi Karvonides in stark black raincoats mud-spattered at the bottom to give a sense of the hard, watery, unpaved streets in 1970s Skye, looking as if they are walking against palpable wind to their solemn, serious business.
Meanwhile Bess enters and sings to the elders, absent at this point from the stage, about her love for and intention to marry Jan.
You see nothing is happy in Skye. At Bess’s wedding, to which Jan is late, everyone looks dour and funereal. Except for Gigliotti’s Dodo, whose face is radiant with joy. It’s the first time you will notice how Gigliotti stands out among this excellent cast. Her face beams while that of another remarkable actress, Patricia Schuman, an opera star with the Thespian talent of a Broadway star, looks disapproving, as if she has a bad taste in her mouth at Bess’s mother.
Extreme religion is amply apparent as the elders state their standards both after listening to Bess extol Jan and upon administering her vows. You see the fire and brimstone, the branding of all congregants as sinners, that is prevalent in some sects within the Anglican church but is less pronounced in the U.S. The funeral in which the corpse is unanimously damned indicates the world Bess is up against and which framed her being in significant ways, especially since her mother subscribes to all her church demands.
Then comes fresh air. Jan arrives, and you can see why the elders may be averse to him. As played by John Moore, he radiates life and spirit. Full-bodied and full-blooded, he exemplifies and exudes a spirit that would quickly be driven out of a resident of Skye. He contrasts with both the elders and Bess, whose emotional repression is so inculcated she cannot express or convey the joy she feels. Jan is an escape from claustrophobic piety. He is boisterous and exciting.. Moore makes him life personified while Gigliotti has Dodo beam in radiated joy, Schuman turns more sneering as mama, and Duffy does a stunningly beautiful turn as someone who is bursting to experience Jan’s exuberance on the inside while remaining properly behaved, under her mother’s watchful eye, as a Skye woman. When left alone with Jan, you see Duffy’s Bess burst in that imperative consummation scene.
So freedom, as represented by Jan and his friend from the rig, Terry, shines light on Skye. For a while. Because a woman’s endurance is the next theme. Schuman plaintively tells Duffy’s Bess that all women in Skye cope with the absence of their men. They have to fish. They have to go off on merchant ships. Helicopters take them to mid-sea outposts to coax crude oil from stubborn rocks in the ocean’s depths. Men are to be appreciated when they’re home, and life is to go on, regularly and uncomplainingly when they’re off working.
But sex is also a part of life and needs to addressed. Jan and Bess arouse themselves via carnal suggestion during telephone calls between the rig and Skye. In what I think is another lapse, you hear about the contents of these calls after the fact instead of witnessing one as it takes place. In the one scene in which you see Bess on the telephone, she is complaining that she wants Jan to quit the rig and stay in Skye. Money and means of living are not addressed. Bess is not necessarily practical. Again, it would be an improvement and add more texture if sexual suggestion was interposed between Bess’s entreaties to Jan to come and stay home.
And so religion rears its head once more. A bit eccentrically. Raised in such a strictly devout town, Bess has strong feelings about God and her relationship to him. She equates things that happen in her life to God’s reaction to her behavior. If she does something the elders might regard as sin, which is Skye could mean opening a door too eagerly on the Sabbath, she believes she will be subject to retribution and take much burden on herself, This may explain her breakdown following her brother’s death.
Vavrek and von Trier also pose a God who might have an ironic sense of humor, a God who laughs at our plans and takes them literally.
Bess’s prayer sessions are complexly dramatic affairs. Her encounters with God are conversations in which she states her prayer or dilemma and God answers, Bess supplying his dialogue and voice. So she blames herself for something, a God, as voiced and composed by Bess, confirms her guilt or gives her exoneration. Her fervent prayer is for Jan to come home and to never have to return to the rig.
When Jan is injured and brought a shattered quadriplegic to Skye, his sexual organs as inert as his limbs, Bess thinks it is a skewed answer to her prayer.
So much comes into play now. Themes introduced now combine in endless permutations that put love, joy, obedience, religion, sexuality, relationship, and prayer on blurry but definite lines. “Breaking the Waves” has been strong, flaws allotted, until the point when Bess takes one of Jan’s requests to heart. Once she begins obeying him and resorts to new and more unusual avenues of prayer, Mazzoli’s music redoubles its evocative wall of sound, Rigg’s set explodes with Larsen’s literal and imaginative graphics, and Duffy goes from a performance that has required subtlety at times to a tour de force that has you waiting to explode into “bravas” when she lands on srage for her curtain call.
As fans of von Trier’s movie will remember, Jan’s request/demand is for Bess to have sex with multiple men and tell him about the experience. A doctor, the first one Bess tries to seduce to satisfy Jan’s dictum, is repulsed even though he is attracted to Bess. Dodo, a nurse tending to Jan, warns that his mind is as affected as his body by his extensive injuries, which are bound to be fatal, and cautions Bess not to obey his demand for her to be promiscuous.
Bess, always the individual, has her own take. After angrily rebuffing Jan and seeing his condition decline towards death, she accedes to his wishes. Reluctantly and with due repulsion, she pursues butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor, to lay with her, and she reports her exploits to the almost comatose Jan. it is to John Moore’s credit that he can lay so still and silent while on stage throughout “Breaking the Waves’s” second and third acts.
In addition to carrying out Jan’s salacious request, an act you can imagine puts Bess at odds with the elders and her mother, and even Dodo who tries to intervene with medical help, Bess raises the stakes of her prayers. If she is obedient, as a wife should be, then her whorish behavior should restore Jan to health. She prays that her promiscuity not be considered perfidy but love, the love she has craved in loveless Skye, the love she found in Jan, and the love she fervently believes will conquer all if she actualizes it to the extreme degree Jan sets.
Duffy, Vavrek, Gigliotti, and David Portillo as the doctor are all part of a whirlwind of activity. Bess goes to extremes beyond imagination in the belief her prostitution will heal Jan. It the uniqueness of “Breaking the Waves” that is so vividly shows the result of Bess’s actions, a result I, though a dedicated spoiler, will in an odd burst of restraint, keep to myself.
I know I’ve listed some instances in which “Breaking the Waves” withheld information or seemed cold at a moment that should have heated and unemotional at times that required intensity, but the overall impression is one of admiration and immersion in a story with so many elements and angles, it’s dizzying in the best and most satisfying way.
By the time “Breaking the Waves” ends, ironically of course, you are drained from the twists and turns in the story, the juxtaposition of pressing, important themes, and the care you have come to have for Bess, especially as Kiera Duffy plays the last third of the opera. “Breaking the Waves” turns out to be an absorbing experience, and so many artists are to be thanked for it.
Strings, especially a single tense sustained note on the violin, set the tone for Mazzoli’s astute and invigorating score, but it’s the percussion, everything from kettle drums to the rhythmic banging of metal of metal to approximate the rig that provides realism and leads you into different settings and moods, and the winds, particularly the oboe, that provides texture and colors.
The vocal line shows the starkness of Skye. Instrumentally, Mazzoli builds from the lush with those strings to provie realistic setting and create moods. The music becomes unbearingly tense, in the right way, as Jan faces danger or Bess is about to confront the elders or her God. The undercurrent can be subtle or a spark to move you emotionally. Tonal changes can be sudden, as befits the various temperaments and attitudes in Vavrek’s libretto or contrasting in a way that shows how many contrapuntal ideas are going on simultaneously, the music adding another line of thought or comment.
Kiera Duffy is magnificent as maintaining vocal beauty as she sings all of the variations and ranges Mazzoli provides. Remember those responsive prayers in which Bess solicits God in high tones and receives her answers in a register that is usually beyond a soprano’s abilities, especially such a pure-toned soprano.
John Moore is as vocally as he is physically exciting. He bursts boisterously on the stage as Jan, sings all in rich, deep tones, manages to sound as it speech is torture when appropriate to Jan’s conditions, and provides energy to Darrah’s production even when Jan is inert and on the brink of death.
Eve Gigliotti is a consistent gem. Aa Dodo, she exudes the warmth missing because of Skye’s rigidity, from so much of “Breaking the Waves.” Dodo becomes an all-purpose character in terms of being Bess’s best friend and a dutiful nurse, and Gigliotti’s acting is always in meticulous keeping with what Dodo is doing or feeling at the moment. Gigliotti is no less expressive as a singer, finding depth and texture in Dodo’s lines and arias. In the midst of accomplished performances, Gigliotti’s is the best. She provides heart while gorgeously matching the flawless Duffy, Moore, and Schuman in tone and vocal majesty.
Patricia Schuman’s “Madame Butterfly” for Opera Philadelphia in 1996, the year of “Breaking the Waves’s” film release, is enough for her to earn lifelong fandom. Her comic touches in “Powder Her Nose” in 2013 shows her versatility. The mother in “Breaking the Waves” adds a new accolade to the Schuman story. Known for exuding glamor, she plays strict and dowdy with great discipline while continuing to mesmerize with her wonderful voice.
Schuman is scarily disapproving as the mother who threatens to disown Bess if she continues her sexual exploits, none of which are named but all of which seems to be noted and scorned by Mama. Schuman’s lush soprano suits Mazzoli’s music. Her passages always resonate and make their hard and exacting point.
David Portillo joins Gigliotti in adding a sense of normality and warm dedication to this opera. His singing as the doctor who treats Jan and knows Bess’s history, is full and melodic. His sincerity as an actor is welcome as he provides much needed humanity to Darrah’s staging.
Zachary James is entertainingly rowdy as Jan’s friend, Terry. Marcus DeLoach is all uncompromising piety as the minister who seems to take pleasure in naming people sinners and consigning their bones to Hell. John David Miles and George Ross Somerville are duly ominous as the shiphands who decide Bess’s fate.
Conductor Stephen Osgood and the Opera Philadelphia played Mazzoli’s complex score brilliantly, bringing out all of its texture. The last sound of the evening is chilling delightful.
Adam Larsen is a true whose projection literally drip with genius. Using black animation on pale gray walls with splashes of black, like the deck of a ship besmeared with oil, Larsen paints figures as evocative, expressive, and literal as Mazzoli’s music. When Jan’s accident occurs, billows of smoke rise from then stage right flats. As Bess embarks on her sexual adventures, phallic shapes drip down the sides of the stage. As she tells Jan about her conquests, clouds burst as if in ejaculation. The effect, with its visual and symbolic exactness, adds to the total appreciation of Darrah’s mise en scene.
“Breaking the Waves,” a world premiere produced by Opera Philadelphia, runs through Saturday, October 1, at the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Remaining showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, September 29 and 8 p.m. Saturday, October 1. Tickets range from $159 to $59 and can be obtained by calling 215-735-8400 or by visiting www.operaphila.org.