EDINBURGH 2019: BWW Review: BREAKING THE WAVES, King's Theatre
Lars von Trier's 1996 film Breaking The Waves has no underscore. So, while the subject matter is perfectly apt for yet another opera where a woman debases herself at the whims of a man, composer Missy Mazzoli has little to musically draw inspiration from.
However, Mazzoli's contemporary score - fusing atmospheric, classical tones with snippets of synthesised electronica amid Jon Nicholls' haunting, barren soundscape - is a complete triumph.
This operatic adaptation has its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival. Soutra Gilmour's lusciously looming and ominous set stands austere and severe, with Will Duke's spectacular projection work and Richard Howell's beautifully bleak lighting recreating the harsh and eerie environment of Skye.
Royce Vavrek does all he can on the Breaking The Waves libretto, but given the dated subject material, he's fighting a losing battle. This Faustian pact, struck in the name of love, is between Bess (a show-stopping Sydney Mancasola) and God, all to bring her newlywed husband (a strong and passionate Duncan Rock) home from the oil rigs. It works... but not in the way she hopes.
In order to best serve her spouse, Bess commits one sordid act after another, convinced that it will aid his recovery. This does not wash with the highly religious church council, a chorus of sanctimonious men who also double up as the satanic voice of God channelled through Bess herself.
Breaking The Waves is a show where Mancasola is key and the remaining cast are ancillary. Not because they are ineffective performers - credit to the ensemble for the rousing choruses, spiritual and pious and demonic - but because they all rotate around Bess within the libretto. Each character inadvertently aims to hold Bess back in the name of protection and fear at her fall into psychosis.
But none can clip the wings of Mancasola and, in her arias, she soars. Under the watchful eye of Tom Morris's inspired direction, Mancasola treads the tightrope of sanity for the whole piece, constantly fearful and yet with a steely resolve to do her duty. Her soprano melodies swoop and dive over Mazzoli's score with grace and ease, contrasting her intentionally imbalanced and fragile performance. With mezzo Wallis Giunta and legendary soprano Susan Bullock, Mancasola completes a trio of women who determinedly push back against the traditional, misogynistic plot line.
Despite Morris's detailed vision for the piece, Breaking The Waves suffers from pacing issues. A beautifully drawn out Act I sets up the premise with poise and precision. Act II severely stalls, flailing about in the water, and Act III succinctly washes all the hard work away amid a torrent of overwrought emotion. There's no finesse to the several potential epilogues to this opera, and, as such, its conclusion feels disjointed.
Mancasola, Mazzoli, Morris - a powerful trio leading a forceful production. And, as the waves crash upon the rocks before receding back into the wash, so Breaking The Waves itself has ebb and flow. What it lacks is a consistent fluidity.