In Breaking the Waves, composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek tackle Lars von Trier’s contentious 1996 film, bringing operatic drama to this story of faith, love and sexuality.
When an accident on the rigs leaves her new husband paralysed, Bess (portrayed by powerful soprano Sydney Mancasola) believes she is responsible and pits her God-fearing goodness against the power of her love in a mission to save him. Jan (Duncan Rock) begs his wife to sleep with strange men and report back to him, but, within her bleak and strictly religious community, such a mission is fraught with spiritual and physical danger.
Soutra Gilmour’s brutalist design, together Richard Howell’s lighting, is triumphantly repressive. The imprisoning collection of monolithic pillars become Bess’ church, Jan’s hospital room, and a fatal cargo ship respectively. Underpinned with Mazzoli’s often harrowing score and a chorus of puritanical men. As Bess falls further into despair, these men emerge as a chilling ensemble covered in sores and scars. The opera viscerally evokes the tragedy of female self-sacrifice and the violence of repression.
But this is difficult territory. While Mazzoli wanted to evoke a universal human experience – the power of loyalty, goodness and faith – it is hard to divorce such a brutal portrayal of female victimhood from the politics of the present moment. It is challenging viewing, not just for its violence, but because Bess is never allowed to transcend the virgin/whore binary of goodness and loyalty that she is forced into.
The opera loses a fresh perspective in its faithful treatment of the source material. Bess struggles with her desire to remain loyal to her husband and to be a ‘good woman’ while fulfilling his wishes. She’s faced with abandonment from her community. Her fall is tragic and the portrayal is powerfully sympathetic. But this is not new territory and without the erotic intimacy of von Trier’s film, it feels frustratingly one-dimensional. Regardless, performances by the principal cast are powerful and emotive and as the curtain closes on Bess’ limp body, it is hard not to feel deeply moved.