An atmospheric adaptation of the Lars Von Trier film continues the operatic tradition of abusing its main female character. Maggie Kelly reviews Missy Mazzoli's Breaking The Waves:

There’s a long history of operas handing their central female characters a rather short straw to defend themselves with. While one would hope that modern pieces might strive to rectify this gendered imbalance, it’s clear in Breaking The Waves that a distressed central female character is too strong a stereotype to resist.

Breaking Waves King's Theatre
Sydney Mancasola (image courtesy of James Glossop)

Based on Lars von Trier’s rather disturbing 1996 film, American composer Missy Mazzoli’s score is nothing short of beautiful. Marrying dark instrumental tones with a buzzing electronic synthesised layer, the atmosphere is troubling and haunting. But it’s the interplay between the score and Jon Nicholl’s melancholic, hollow soundscape that helps the opera almost transcend its misogynistic roots. It’s lyrical but jarring, dissonant and layered.

A new production by Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures, conducted by Stuart Stratford and directed by the Old Vic’s Tom Morris, the libretto (Royce Vavrek) does what it can with the original subject matter.

But it’s incredibly hard to ignore how pervasive the sexism really is.

Breaking Waves King's Theatre
Sydney Mancasola & Duncan Rock (image courtesy of James Glossop)

Bess McNeill (a haunting Sydney Mancasola) marries Jan Nyman (a terrific Duncan Rock), an oil-rig worker who is then terribly injured in an accident. Nyman asks his wife to sleep with other men in act after increasingly sordid act, playing to his fantasies and his own sexual gratification. Bess is convinced it will aid his recovery, and does so pretty much unhesitatingly. But the couple’s lewd activities do not go unnoticed by the highly religious church elders – Heaven and Hell collide through their voices, forcing Bess to her expected violent demise.

Breaking Waves King's Theatre
Image courtesy of James Glossop

Mancasola is truly fantastic in the title role. There is an edge to her voice, a skittishness in her portrayal of Bess’s sanity that focusses sympathy and predicts her downfall. The acts of sexual violence committed onstage however are so common to the ‘drama’ of the operatic genre that this particular reviewer has a (rather commonly experienced) underlying feeling of distaste. Personal reactions to this may differ.

Sydney Mancasola (image courtesy of James Glossop)

Ultimately, Breaking the Waves is an interesting and consistent adaptation of the von Trier original with a phenomenal cast. It is, however, very tiring to continue seeing modern operas based around the mistreatment and deaths of women. There are so many of them already in the operatic canon that constructing even more opportunities to see women being beaten onstage feels gratuitous.

★★★☆☆

Breaking The Waves played at King’s Theatre. For more information, please visit the festival website.