Social Outcast: Breaking the Waves from Opera Philadelphia

Mazzoli – Breaking the Waves

Bess McNeill – Kiera Duffy
Jan Nyman – John Moore
Dodo McNeill – Eve Gigliotti
Bess’ Mother – Patricia Schuman
Dr. Richardson – David Portillo
Terry – Zachary James
Minister – Marcus DeLoach
Sadistic Sailor – John David Miles
The Runt – George Ross Somerville
The Stone Thrower – Daniel Taylor

Opera Philadelphia Chorus, Opera Philadelphia Orchestra / Steven Osgood.
Stage director – James Darrah.  Video director – Michael Denis.

Opera Philadelphia, Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.  Thursday, September 29th, 2016.  Streamed via Opera Philadelphia’s website.

Commissioned and premiered by Opera Philadelphia in 2016, Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s operatic adaptation of Lars von Trier’s 1996 movie Breaking the Waves, has in just four short years found its place as a contemporary repertoire work.  Since those initial performances in the City of Brotherly Love, the work has travelled to Scotland, in a new production, and this staging by James Darrah will shortly be seen also in Los Angeles.  Opera Philadelphia has kindly made this performance available online until August 31st this year, as part its first ever digital festival.

Photo: © Dominic M Mercier / Opera Philadelphia

Mazzoli’s score is an assured piece of writing.  Scored for a chamber orchestra, with single strings, winds, brass and percussion combined with harp, piano/synthesizer and electric guitar, the complex soundworld produced belies these modest forces (at least over the small screen).  Mazzoli makes use of high, filigree string writing, juxtaposed with crashing chords.  There are echoes of the Britten of Peter Grimes or the minimalism of Philip Glass in places, but also buried deep within the orchestral textures are hints of Scottish folk music.  The writing for the 12-strong male chorus was especially impressive, rendering them at times a solid mass of sound, at others 12 individual voices, often and paradoxically simultaneously.  The word setting for the principals can feel somewhat predictable in patterns though, particularly with the subtitles giving advanced notice of what was coming next.  They do sound eminently singable, however, only taking characters to the extremes of their registers occasionally, in particular making use of extreme higher registers when characters felt pain.  That said, in common with the subject matter, this isn’t a score that makes for easy listening, in the way that Jake Heggie can often feel, for instance.  Rather, it can seem frequently unremitting, pulling in and challenging the audience to feel, whether in feeling sorrow, pain or even pity along with the characters.

Photo: © Dominic M Mercier / Opera Philadelphia

This is especially the case with Keira Duffy’s Bess.  Through Mazzoli’s music and James Darrarh’s staging, Bess comes across as a character lost in the oppressive setting in which she finds herself.  Small wonder then, that she should choose to marry an outsider, and small wonder that she takes upon herself a duty of giving up her body in the sincere belief that it would keep her husband alive.  Darrah’s staging is unremittingly dark, the sole brightness coming from Bess’s costumes.  The clarity of his storytelling is vivid and he coaxes performances of remarkable bravery from the cast.  We see a topless Bess being manhandled by the men of the town, or a naked Jan walking through the assembled forces as if risen from the dead – though this being the USA, body parts were pixilated lest anyone be offended by the sight of bare breasts or a penis.  The courage and all-encompassing strength of Duffy and John Moore’s Jan, their willingness to experiment and give all of themselves is inspirational – Moore having to sing Jan’s music in the later act while laying down with a brace around his neck.  Darrah moves the forces around the stage with confidence and gives us a fluent and effective piece of theatre.

Photo: © Dominic M Mercier / Opera Philadelphia

Duffy’s Bess is the kind of performance that defines a career, not least because she got to create this role and in doing so, very much makes it her own.  She makes a respectable stab at a Highland accent (though the subtitles were extremely welcome) and she had clearly mastered the role and all of its demands.  For the most part it sits well for her bright, light soprano and she floated the rare excursions into the stratosphere with impressive ease.  There was also something haunting in her stage presence, the blankness of her facial impressions gave her Bess an otherworldly aura, of someone living in a parallel universe where her actions and motivations made complete sense.

Photo: © Dominic M Mercier / Opera Philadelphia

Moore was equally impressive as Jan.  His firm, resonant baritone gave much pleasure, even throughout the range with an impressive amplitude on top.  He also succeeded in maintaining that firmness of tone even when placed on a bed, unable to move.  David Portillo brought an equally even tenor of wonderful ease of production as Dr Richardson.  There’s a handsomeness to the sound that I found most agreeable to listen to.  As Bess’s sister-in-law Eve Gigliotti sang with a full-bodied, tangy mezzo, the stridency on top bringing out Eve’s pain at seeing what had happened to Bess.  Similarly, Patricia Schuman brought a warm and resonant mezzo to the role of Bess’s mother, not afraid to get chesty in places.  The remaining roles were admirably taken.

Photo: © Dominic M Mercier / Opera Philadelphia

The gentlemen of the chorus, prepared by Elizabeth Braden, had clearly mastered the intricacies of Mazzoli’s writing which they dispatched with confidence.  As indeed did the instrumentalists of Opera Philadelphia’s orchestra who, under Steven Osgood, brought out a range of colours in Mazzoli’s orchestration, from the iciness of Highland winds, to the austere darkness of religious conformity.  The sound mix, as recorded, gave the voices due prominence while also allowing the orchestral textures to register fully.  Osgood paced his reading sensibly, the evening unfolding organically.

Photo: © Dominic M Mercier / Opera Philadelphia

Having now had the opportunity to see this important new work, it’s clear why it has been picked up by a number of venues.  This is an ambitious work, one that certainly does not make for an easy evening, but instead challenges its viewers to engage and to feel Bess’s predicament.  Musically, it was commendably performed, capped by a performance of histrionic and musical commitment that filled one with admiration.  Undoubtedly a work worthy of discovery and thanks are due to Opera Philadelphia for making it available to a wider public.

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