Breaking the Waves
Missy Mazzoli & Royce Vavrek (USA)
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Place
Based on Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film of the same name, the new opera Breaking the Waves offers a grand showcase for the soprano Kiera Duffy. Duffy delivers a powerhouse performance as Bess McNeill, an unstable, lovestruck girl in a religious seaside town. Von Trier’s story is a bleak one. After her beloved husband is paralyzed, Bess agrees to his demands that she have sex with other men and describe the encounters to him. Her increasing degradation, mistreatment and eventual murder at the hands of the townsmen is depicted as a kind of selfless martyrdom, with various characters continually referring to her “goodness” and “golden heart.” It is difficult to tell whether the production shares these views; are we watching a commentary on systemic cultural misogyny, or just an example of it? The material leaves an unpleasant taste and the question of whether the artists might have used their considerable talents in service of a less morally troublesome source.
Still, the craft and artistry of the production is undeniable. Missy Mazzoli’s music is filled with tension, performed by the singers and musicians with a uniformly strong depth of emotion. Mazzoli also makes ingenious use of alternative sources of sound, including an onstage record player and the pop and hiss of beer cans. Director James Darrah and the designers create arresting stage pictures to match. There are particularly striking moments with the menacing men’s chorus, such as when a group of black-clad men open their bibles and a rain of ash streams out of them. The music and production together create an absorbing, impeccably detailed world, immersing the audience in Bess’s unforgiving surroundings.
[Photo credit: Dominic M. Mercier]