Composer: Missy Mazzoli
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Librettist: Royce Vavrek
Director: James Darrah
Kiera Duffy: Bess McNeill
John Moore: Jan Nyman
Eve Gigliotti: Dodo McNeill
Theodora Hanslowe: Bess' Mother
Matthew Curran: Terry
Dominic Armstrong: Dr. Richardson
Marcus DeLoach: Minister
The Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street
Opera Philadelphia Chorus
Now that 2016 is solidly behind us, I could not find a better way to start 2017 than with a new opera that deals head-first with exacerbated emotions, religious fanaticism, sexual depravity and modern martyrdom, courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects, Opera Philadelphia and, first and foremost, New York's very own Prototype Festival, which in its fifth year is showing nothing but signs of getting bigger, stronger and better, a remarkable accomplishment all music-loving New Yorkers are very grateful for.
Inspired by the 1996 Lars von Trier film, which routinely dealt an unforgettable gut-wrenching punch to everyone who saw it while putting wide-eyed but steel-willed Emily Watson forever on the map of actresses to watch, Breaking the Waves has become an opera composed by Missy Mazzoli, who fully embraced and clearly conquered the mighty challenge.
Three performances were scheduled at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and I figured that I might as well go to the first one, on Friday evening, since it was the official New York premiere and, more prosaically, the weather forecast was not particularly optimistic for the rest of the weekend. Apparently, a lot of important and less important people felt the same way, and we all excitedly packed up the pleasant theater.
The blatantly unusual story revolves around a young Scottish woman who in a short time experiences incredible highs and agonizing lows when joyfully finding the perfect husband and then promptly seeing him suffer from a horrific work accident, which eventually leads her to debase herself through increasingly sordid sexual encounters as a way to save him. To make things even worse, all of this takes place among a deeply religious and particularly intolerant Scottish island community.
A veteran of the world premiere in Philadelphia in September 2016, soprano Kiera Duffy had the frail frame, aching vulnerability, unbreakable stamina, fearless spirit and vocal intensity necessary to carry out what was essentially an awe-inspiring one-woman show. Her visceral combination of endearing goodness and uncompromising fierceness made her Bess all the more poignant as we watched her bare her body and soul all the way to her ghastly death. A new tragic heroine had been born.
Kiera Duffy's performance being so central and riveting, the other singers unsurprisingly tended to pale next to her. However, with his rugged good looks and attractively burnished voice, baritone John Moore did not escape notice as Jan, the oil rig worker Bess marries for better or worse. In their better times, his scenes with Kiera Duffy had a spontaneous intimacy that made their emotional and physical bond all the more palpable, and even after the worst happened, he remained a powerful presence even as he was lying paralyzed from the neck down.
Another standout performer was formidable mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti as Dodo McNeill, Bess' sister-in-law who stood firmly by her side even as their entire community turned its back on the increasingly self-degrading young woman. Her beautifully lyrical, wonderfully warm and truly compelling singing effortlessly filled up the entire theater while unmistakably embodying the steady voice of compassion and selflessness.
All the other singers ─ Theodora Hanslowe as Bess' worrying mother, Matthew Curran as Jan’s loyal buddy and supervisor Terry, Dominic Armstrong as compassionate Dr. Richardson and Marcus Deloach as the ruthless minister ─ came through with equal force and commitment, and the outstanding members of the chorus, who had to switch rapidly between implacable churchmen, boisterous rig workers and sadistic lovers, fulfilled their parts with plenty of talent and integrity, and without missing a beat.
The production used one stark set made of broken down planks on the stage, which created spaces and props for the singers to move around, and screens on the background, on which videos of the oil rig violently exploding as well as black splashes of ink tarnishing the immaculate canvas – and Bess' reputation – randomly appeared. Everything remained efficiently minimalist and perfectly in line with the inescapable bleakness of the story.
On the other end, as if to blur the line between performance and reality, during the intermission the audience members who stayed inside the theater got to witness Jan being cared for by dedicated medical staff and then left alone in full hospital gear, and the performance resumed as many people were still streaming back to their seats, which ended up being more frustrating for everybody than anything else.
The brittle Scottish landscape and Bess' no less brittle state of mind were cleverly reinforced by Missy Mazzoli’s wildly inventive, confidently unpredictable score that, for all the occasional pleasant melodic offerings, had countless unnerving moments filled with strange sounds and jagged dissonances. The overall texture was nevertheless cleanly woven and carefully balanced, making sure that the singers could be heard over even the most grating instrumental turbulence.
The exacting musicians of the unseen NOVUS NY orchestra, which featured awesomely esoteric percussions and made impressive use of an electric guitar, was commandingly conducted by Julian Wachner, who proved one more time what a versatile and involved music man he is. Although we could just from time to time see the top of his head and his moving arms, there was no doubt that he was keeping thing firmly under control and significant contributed in turning this daring endeavor into a successful and memorable experience.