Breaking the Waves, the breathtaking new opera by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, had its New York premier on January 6, 2017 at NYU’s Skirball Center. It had premiered in Philadelphia in September 2016 at Opera Philadelphia, which had co-commissioned the work with Beth Morrison Projects. Based on the Lars von Trier movie of the same name, the story is set in an insular (literally) community on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. A young woman, Bess, a member of the tight-knit religious community, marries an outsider, Jan, to the great consternation of her congregation. He works on an offshore oil rig (for us literalists, there are no oil rigs off of Skye – they are all in the North Sea on the other side of Scotland). Bess prays for his early return. He is injured and paralyzed and, from his hospital bed, asks Bess to have sex with other men and to recount her liaisons to him. The reasons for this request are murky (to keep their marriage and his hopes alive?) but her assent seemingly isn’t: she feels guilty for praying for his early return, feels she may have caused his accident, wants to do the right thing by her husband and believes she will thereby cure him. That said, Bess does like sex, as we saw when she asked Jan to consummate their marriage in a loo at their wedding reception – envisioning it to be a romantic setting when it was anything but. As she sets forth, hesitantly, on her sexual adventures/redemption, is she fooling herself, or her husband, or is she delusional, or full of faith? She certainly does not enjoy the sex. She is degraded, humiliated and victimized and meets a tragic end. Her husband recovers, presumably redeemed by her sacrifice.
A jagged stage set represents the jagged coast and sharp-edged lives of the residents (and the jumbled souls and psyches of the protagonists). The characters are trapped in a judgmental religious world, with clear rules and no mercy inside or outside the church. Bess is a small woman, as portrayed by Kiera Duffy, but with a large, clear voice, like the church bells that miraculously sound at the final curtain. A 15-piece orchestra conveys Mazzoli’s haunting and jagged score that captures the conflict, desperation and agony of Bess and Jan. A chorus, of 12 men, in soiled black overcoats and black hats, representing the church elders and Bess’s tormentors and assailants, were appropriately oppressive, unforgiving and menacing. The libretto was pared down and to the point. The staging was dramatic, and the voices were uniformly excellent. Kiera Duffy’s brave portrayal of Bess was riveting. She, and the opera, deserved the standing ovation the audience gave at the end.
Note: the author is a trustee of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which makes grants to Opera America, which funded the commission of this opera.