With films such as 2011’s Melancholia, with its obvious references to Wagner, the director Lars von Trier hasn’t shied away from operatic ambition. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek found inspiration in his 1996 film Breaking the Waves. Their eponymous opera, commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and presented in its premiere Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in a production directed by James Darrah, is as daring and devastating as its morally complicated source.
Set on Scotland’s religiously and socially conservative Isle of Skye in the 1970s, the opera opens on the wedding day of the virginal and psychologically fragile Bess O’Neill and the Norwegian oil rig worker Jan, with whom she quickly finds matrimonial and carnal bliss. When Jan is paralyzed in a drilling accident, he convinces Bess that the only way his now bed-bound life could have meaning would be if she solicited sex with other men and relayed her encounters to him in lurid detail.
Bess complies, partly convinced by conversations with God in which she voices both sides. Mazzoli inserts a male chorus of Calvinist elders into these discussions, amplifying the divine mandate Bess feels with society’s pressure to obey her husband’s wishes. Strikingly, these men double as dockworkers who eventually debase, rape, and mutilate Bess in her pursuit to satisfy both Jan and God.
Mazzoli and Vavrek have stated that the film’s intertwining themes of religion, loyalty, and love lend themselves to opera, a medium that eagerly embraces overblown histrionics and heart-wringing excess. In this context, Breaking the Waves steers short of melodrama, aided by Mazzoli’s urgent yet economic score and Darrah’s raw staging – which included frequent nudity and candid, often disturbing sexual situations – never felt as though it were pandering.
The Scottish landscape was a prime source of inspiration for both composer and librettist, though a metaphor invoking island topography as Bess explores Jan’s naked body fell flat. The libretto was strongest when it hewed closely to the movie script, such as when Bess condemns her Bible-touting tormentors: “You cannot be in love with words. You can only love another human being.”
Adam Rigg’s set, broken risers in front of what looked like a Richard Serra steel ellipse pried open, gave a starkly industrial feel to the production. Adam Larsen’s abstract projections traced the flow of liquids, such as blood, oil, and seawater, on the backdrop.
The credibility of this rather unbelievable tale relies on its Bess, and this production is fortunate to have the luminous soprano Kiera Duffy in the role that earned Emily Watson an Oscar nomination. In voice and in person, Duffy wrenchingly conveyed the innocence and good embodied in Bess throughout her various states of undress and mounting degradations. As Jan, baritone John Moore mustered the virile energy of a man confined to an oil rig for months at a time, but also conveyed pathos when he was confined to a hospital bed for practically the entire second and third acts.
A committed cast rounded out this strong performance, particularly Eve Gigliotti as Bess’s sister-in-law Dodo, who transforms from a prudish confidant to an ardent defender. David Portillo, Patricia Schuman, and Zachary James made strong impressions in supporting roles.
Amanda Angel is a New York-based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Time Out New York, and the websites of WQXR and ESPN. She can be reached at email@example.com.