The operatic adaptation of Lars von Triers’ film Breaking the Waves succeeds in ways the film fails, says Ben Brooker
Lars von Trier’ Breaking the Waves (1996)was the work of an auteur channeling a (relatively) large budget into an art film that could hold its own at the megaplex. The result didn’t trouble the box office, but it did make von Trier’s name outside his native Denmark as a serious-minded director of a recognisable kind, his earlier films – Liberation Pictures (1982), and the Europa trilogy (1984-91) – doing little to disguise their debt to a long line of male European auteurs from Fritz Lang and Bernardo Bertolucci to Andrei Tarkovsky.
Where the protagonists of those films were quixotic men broken by society and betrayed by women (I’ll come back to von Trier’s much-noted misogyny later), Breaking the Waves centred a young woman, Bess McNeill, whose marriage and sexual subjugation to “outsider” oil rig worker Jan on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in the early 1970s scandalises her insular community, and especially the puritanical Calvinist church to which she belongs.
‘I wondered how such a profoundly psychological film could be successfully distilled for the stage’
It’s not hard to see why American composer Missy Mazzoli and Canadian librettist Royce Vavrek – who had collaborated previously on Song from the Uproar in 2012 – were drawn to the idea of adapting what is essentially a melodrama into an opera (its premiere was in 2016 at Opera Philadelphia). With its weighty, universal themes of faith, love, and sacrifice, its windswept and dramatic setting and its tragic character arcs, the fit must have seemed a natural one.
And yet, rewatching the film recently, I was struck by its interiority, the almost suffocatingly tight visual field von Trier maintains with handheld camerawork. I wondered how such a profoundly psychological film – despite its stunning locations, only the panoramic chapter cards, pastiching the work of 19th century romantic painters, linger on Skye’s cinematic landscapes – could be successfully distilled for the stage.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Mazzoli’s treatment, while far from radical – at least superficially, the opera deviates hardly at all from the film – subtly but effectively redresses the misogyny of von Trier’s film, imbuing Bess not merely with strength but also complexity, and a sense, however compromised by her circumstances, of agency.
Mazzoli brings a welcome shift in focus from the individualised psychosis portrayed, at times with a brutal voyeurism, in the film, to patriarchal systems of power whose demands on women to subordinate themselves to their husbands (“man is head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church”) are both toxic and, finally, impossible to meet, even on their own terms. The opera, unlike the film, leaves little ambiguity around the nature of Bess’s abasement: that it is not for the sake of Jan, who insists, after becoming paralysed in an accident on the rig, on living vicariously through his wife’s sexual encounters with other people, but that it emerges from her all-consuming will to believe.
From the beginning, the opera – directed by Tom Morris with a set by Soutra Gilmour and lighting by Richard Howell – effectively conjures the dour, hermetic world of Bess (brilliantly portrayed by rising American soprano Sydney Mancasola). Gilmour’s revolving set, a series of grey, moodily lit monoliths encircling a structure of wooden, church-like tiers, evokes both Skye’s distinctively foreboding cliffs and, via Will Duke’s impressive projections, the harsh industrialism of the rig. It also reinforces a sense of isolation and containment, bespeaking the grim social architecture of the patriarchal church (“no woman speaks here”) and the homosocial workplace (“drill deep men/force it from the rock”). A superb device, established early, sees Bess’s soliloquies, which eerily switch between her own voice and that of a punitive god in the film, split between her and a chorus of men (chorus master Susannah Wapshott), sometimes the stony-faced zealots of the church – hissing the “ss” in Bess like a nest of snakes – and sometimes bare-chested, zombie-like creatures that seem to foreshadow, and then reflect, Jan’s fate.
‘The opera succeeds where the film does not – in responding to the humiliation of women, an inevitability under patriarchy, not with indifference but something like compassion’
Mazzoli’s postmodern minimalist score, reminiscent in its marriage of dissonance and ethereal beauty of Messiaen and Janáček and performed by a chamber orchestra with soloists from the Scottish Opera (conductor Stuart Stratford), is vibrantly percussive and richly textured, its unobtrusively novel instrumentation including electric guitar and synthesiser.
Deftly slipping in and out of harmony with Vavrek’s spare libretto, the score succeeds in capturing the bleak grandeur of Skye and Bess’s various states of disassociation as she is driven to ever more vicious acts of self-degradation. Mancasola, who barely leaves the stage, gives a performance of immense power and dramatic variation (this isn’t an opera for singers who can’t act), and mezzo Wallis Giunta is similarly excellent as Dodo, Bess’s sister. The formidable Australian baritone Duncan Rock, as Jan, has much less to do.
There are some missteps. The casting of black baritone Bryon Jackson as the jovial, wisecracking Terry, Jan’s workmate and buddy, uncomfortably evokes the salt and pepper and black best friend tropes. And I agree with critics who argue that, as it lacks dramatic momentum, the middle of the opera sags. Nevertheless, its overwhelming effect, almost fully realised in this production, is compulsive and harrowing and, in many ways, transcends its source material.
“They suffer, they cry, they die,” went Catherine Clément’s gloss on the standard fate of opera heroines. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to confirm that Mazzoli and Vavrek don’t deviate from this script but they do, significantly, give us cause to wonder whether Bess’s fate transcends the topos – extending, in the Western canon, at least as far back as Wagner – of male salvation through female martyrdom.
I think it does, and it’s in no small part because the opera succeeds where the film does not – in responding to the humiliation of women, an inevitability under patriarchy, not with indifference but something like compassion. Where the film culminates in a scene of supernatural redemption, the opera’s denouement is an altogether secular-humanist affair. Bess’s is tragedy given its full weight – neither diminished, nor aestheticised away.
Breaking the Waves, based on the film by Lars von Trier. Music by Missy Mazzoli, ibretto by Royce Vavrek. Conductor Stuart Stratford, director Tom Morris, revival director Sara Brodie, designer Soutra Gilmour. original lighting designer Richard Howell, projection designer Will Duke, sound designer Jon Nicholls, chorus master and assistant conductor Susannah Wapshott. Performed by Sydney Mancasola, Duncan Rock, Wallis Giunta, Orla Boylan, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Byron Jackson, Freddie Tong, Francis Church and David Llyn. Commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival.