Review: Breaking the Waves – Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Edinburgh International Festival

Breaking the Waves – Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera

King’s Theatre

19:15 21, 23, 24 August

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

I hadn’t gone expecting a bundle of joy: I did expect Scottish Opera to do an amazing job of selling me something I wasn’t predisposed to like or admire – and they definitely did that, in spades. The basic storyline is that of Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves: Bess McNeill, a young girl from Skye falls in love with, and marries Jan, who works on an oil rig. Her strictly Calvinistic community disapprove, but tell her that now she is married she must be obedient to her husband. Bess is hopelessly in love and is hysterical when Jan has to leave her and go back to the rig. She pleads with God for him to return: when Jan is horribly injured in an accident on the rig Bess is convinced that she is responsible.

So far, so good: the depiction of the black-clad, austere and male-dominated religious community controlling island life is superbly portrayed by a chorus, as is Bes’s almost idolatrous love for her husband. But Jan is now in hospital and the doctor doesn’t honk he’ll ever walk again: perhaps it would be better if Jan died? But Bess is beside herself – Jan can’t die: she will save him. Jan convinces her against her will that she must go out and find men to make love to her and then tell him about it: this, he says, will keep him alive. Bess desperately tries to obey him, but it is tearing her apart: worse still, god isn’t listening to her or talking to her any more. Her encounters with men become increasingly sordid and violent until finally she is horrifically wounded and dies: she is buried and the righteous men of the community inform everyone that she will go to hell. Jan, however, seems to have made a miraculous recovery…

The production was superb. A brilliantly-designed set consisted of a half-diamond-shaped arrangement of pillars which increased in height towards the centre. The ‘interior’ space was filled with rising tiers of pews which could also double as the layers of the rig; the ‘exterior’ space provided two separate areas which could be, among others, the village hall, Bess’s mother’s house, the doctor’s office and a ward in the hospital. Projections of the sea, clouds, rocks, and the rig on to the pillars produced wonderfully atmospheric backgrounds for the action.

Musically it was most interesting, and far pleasanter to listen to than I had feared, with complex sound-pictures against which the vocal lines could soar, and excellent psalmodic writing for the censorious, joyless male chorus of Kirk Elders who controlled everyone’s behaviour and also voiced God’s part in Bess’s conversations with him. Bess’s own vocal lines were extraordinary powerful and beautiful, sung with intense passion and conviction by Sydney Mancasola: I was less impressed with Duncan Rock’s Jan after the first act. Vocally he was excellent, but I never gained much insight into his motivation or his feelings, especially his final rather self-indulgent scene after Bess’s funeral – had he really stolen her body to give it to the sea? Was he in the slightest bit grief-stricken or remorseful? He said ‘it should have been me’- but didn’t convince me, while the somewhat melodramatic ending didn’t chime so well with the realism of the rest of the piece – even Bess’s conversations with god made more sense.

Disappointing? Unsatisfying? Some bits were magnificent. I’m not so sure about the shambling, bare-chested, wounded and moaning men who advanced on Bess towards the end of the opera and found the pretty graphic sex simulations off-putting [I couldn’t help continually wondering whether the participants got on well in real life,

and what it felt like to have to do these things on stage]. I noticed a fair number of empty seats after the interval – had the newly-wed’s urgent sex in the community hall toilet been too much for them? – but there was loud applause for Sydney Mancasola at the final curtain, unlike the somewhat puzzled applause at the end of act 2.

The names of the 3 acts are possibly significant – Love, Faith, Ultimatum? Missy Mazzoli’s music made a convincing sound picture of someone disintegrating under impossible burdens placed upon her by everyone around her. I’m less convinced by Royce Vavrek’s libretto, which didn’t always make things clear – but maybe that was the point? Was Bess really a saint who sacrificed herself to save her husband’s life, or a hysterical delusionist who self-destructed?

It was certainly an arresting piece: I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it had many outstanding qualities. I wonder whether it will become a staple of the operatic repertoire, or like so many others, fade away and never be seen again.

Mary Woodward