Opera’s line of corpses — bloodied, battered, dumped in a bag — is a long one. Now it can add one more to the list: the broken, abused body of Bess McNeill. The heroine of Lars Von Trier’s uncompromising 1996 film is a curious creation. Striving against the restrictions of her austere, Presbyterian community on a remote Scottish island, she marries oil-worker and ‘outsider’ Jan. But when an accident on the rig leaves him paralysed, a promise to her husband and a bargain with God leads her into increasingly degrading and dangerous sexual encounters. Savant or innocent, saviour or sacrificial victim — Von Trier leaves it unclear.
Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s adaptation premiered in Philadelphia in 2016 to rave reviews, and two years on the opera has already notched up multiple productions including this, its European premiere.
You can hear why. The score is endlessly attractive and easily graspable, a blend of windswept atmospherics (gulls cry in Brittenish flutes, waves roll in tumbling string scales before exploding into sharp sprays of percussion), rigid, psalm-like chants for the church elders and a freewheeling lyricism for Bess herself, sometimes anchored by the transgressive thrust and throb of the electric guitar. It’s all elegantly managed and melodically appealing, but that’s rather the problem.
Love or hate Von Trier’s film, it tells its story with unblinking, unsentimental clarity. No soundtrack underscores the brisk scenes or editorialises the many episodes of abuse and sexual violence.
In setting the story to music, Mazzoli responds to a gap in the original, to a space created by the absent church bells banished by the elders, to the silencing of women in the services. But in supplementing the film’s silence with song, Mazzoli softens it, aestheticises it in ways that are uncomfortably familiar.
Because the character of Bess, heavy with echoes and allusions, is like a gun that comes ready-loaded. She’s Manon, learning her own sexuality, she’s Lulu, she’s Salome as she dances provocatively for her doctor, Lucia in her blood-stained wedding dress, and finally Gilda unwrapped from her body-bag by her grieving husband. It begs the question: of all the many stories left to tell in the opera house, was this really the most urgent?
The telling itself here is strong, however. Soutra Gilmour’s simple, suggestive designs imprison the action in a tight cluster of pillars that, with the help of Will Duke’s projections, transform from church to hospital to rig. Where Von Trier exploits the tension between the open Scottish landscapes and the oppressive community living within them, Gilmour and director Tom Morris celebrate the claustrophobia of interiors, trapping Bess in a fortress whose stern, black-suited elders are all but indistinguishable from the stone columns that surround them.
A revolve keeps the opera’s many short scenes (a hangover from the film) progressing fluidly, though its constant movement risks becoming frenetic in the less focused action of Acts II and III, where Mazzoli and Vavrek misjudge their pacing and let the story slip a little from their grip.
Bess was the breakout role for actress Emily Watson, and American soprano Sydney Mancasola is scarcely less impressive. Vocally and physically pliant, reinventing herself under the gaze of the elders, the much-desired touch of her husband, the touch of strangers that must be endured, Mancasola’s Bess is a mirror to all around her. Her childlike demeanour and woman’s voice create an uncomfortable friction, particularly in the graphic sex scenes that make no concession to the confrontation of the live, staged experience.
So dominant a central character leaves little space for the supporting cast. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta is earth to Man-casola’s air as Bess’s sister-in-law Dodo, and some of the best singing of the night comes from Elgan Llyr Thomas’s Dr Richardson, his high, crooned melismas an answer to the rough-and-tumble force of Duncan Rock’s Jan. The latter may be underwritten, but it’s a mistake to compensate with a late aria. A man standing over a dead woman’s body speaking for her, translating her — it’s an act that takes the wind out of the closing miracle’s sails, dulling the absurd, the extraordinary, the redemptive into something sentimental.
Breaking the Waves is just one of a flood of recent operas based on films. Ades’s The Exterminating Angel, Neuwirth’s Lost Highway, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain — all speak of a growing need to bolster new opera with the scaffolding of old stories. There’s nothing new there; we’ve been doing it with novels for centuries. What is different now are the composers.
You can count the number of high-profile, full-length operas commissioned from women in the past 20 years on very few fingers. That such a large proportion are based on or associated with films is worrying. Just look at the directors: Minghella, Von Trier, Lynch. Are female composers only to be admitted on to the main stages of our major houses with the chaperone of a starry male auteur behind them? It’s beginning to look a lot like it.