In Edinburgh Breaking the Waves Restores Faith in Opera as an Art Form

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival [12] – Missy Mazzoli, Breaking the Waves: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 21.8.2019. (SRT)

Sydney Mancasola (Bess) and Duncan Rock (Jan) (c) James Glossop


Director – Tom Morris
Designer – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer – Richard Howell
Projection designer – Will Duke
Sound designer – Jon Nicholls
Associate director and Movement – Sara Brodie


Bess – Sydney Mancasola
Jan – Duncan Rock
Dodo – Wallis Giunta
Mother – Susan Bullock
Dr Richardson – Elgan Llŷr Thomas

Just as this show was about to start, I mentioned to a colleague that I was always a bit nervous before going into a new opera. ‘Well you’ve nothing to worry about’, he smiled back at me, ‘because this piece isn’t new!’ He’s right! With a start, I realised that three whole years have passed since Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves had its Philadelphia premiere and, as far as I can make out, this EIF staging (the piece’s European premiere) is its fourth new production. That’s a staggering hit-rate for a contemporary opera; so is it worth the hype?

In a word, yes. I found it gripping; a tightly constructed drama where the music and text work hand in hand to produce a deeply compelling piece of theatre. Not that it’s light-hearted watching, mind you. It’s based on Lars von Trier’s 1996 film, set in a remote west of Scotland community. Bess McNeill is a deeply spiritual – or should that be delusional? – young woman who finds happiness in her marriage to Jan, but Jan has a serious accident working on the oil rigs and is nearly paralysed. He asks her to have sex with other men so that she can come back to him and describe it, but this has psychological and mystical consequences for Bess that threaten to spiral out of control.

Cheery it ain’t, but the scenario is perfect for a twenty-first century opera because it taps into our contemporary insecurities and relies for its power on suggestion and ambiguity so that it’s seldom entirely clear what’s going on, who is in control, and what is the right thing to do. Royce Vavrek’s libretto does a great job of distilling the action into a three-act scenario, and Tom Morris’s production is a triumph. Soutra Gilmour’s revolves around a forbidding group of stelae which an ingenious set of video projections turns into a multitude of different locations, from the cliffs of Skye and its crashing waves through to the oil rig or the red ship. The direction of the characters is subtly but effectively done, with little gestures made to count for much, and there’s a pleasing circularity to the evening’s structure that carries an emotional punch at the end.

As does Mazzoli’s music. She has ingeniously tapped into what gives the piece its power and created a musical score that carries the action along while illuminating the characters from within, shedding all manner of new light on the reasons for their actions. Writing for a (brilliant) chamber orchestra of soloists from Scottish Opera, she creates a dazzling palette of colours and an array of sounds that serve the drama brilliantly but also please the ear, be it in the rich blocks of strings, the evocative winds or the unusual percussion; and always at work is an ever-shifting sea of harmonies that draws the listener in rather than repelling with unfamiliarity.

It’s masterful, and it’s brought to life by an extraordinarily committed cast, led by Sydney Mancasola as Bess. She’s a marvel, extracting every scintilla of possibility from her soprano voice, from euphoria to misery via delirium. This is a total tour de force, and the show is worth seeing for her alone. Duncan Rock’s dark baritone suits the tormented Jan well, and as Dodo, Bess’s sister-in-law and the most sympathetic character in the piece, Wallis Giunta sings with warm humanity. Susan Bullock, who is choosing her roles extremely well at the moment, is a delightfully shrewish mother, and Elgan Llŷr Thomas is a solid voice of reason as Dr Richardson. The chorus embody a range of roles with intimidating strength, and Stuart Stratford conducts the piece as though he has known it all his life.

I was worried that the opera’s ending was going to bottle it, but they pulled it out of the bag in the final moments to create a conclusion that was as ambiguous as it had to be, tapping into what makes the piece such a success in the first place. This is a piece to restore your faith in opera as an art form with a future. Catch it while you can.

Simon Thompson

Breaking the Waves runs until 24th August. For full details click here.

The 2019 Edinburgh International Festival runs in venues across the city until Monday 26th August. For full details click here.

1 thought on “In Edinburgh <i>Breaking the Waves</i> Restores Faith in Opera as an Art Form”

  1. I have to disagree but as I left at the interval that inevitably colours my view. This opera could have been written eighty years ago. This was poorly reheated Britten or Tippet with all the associated problems of opera in English. Was I the only one to cringe when she sang about his penis? No originality. Musically immediately forgettable. And an increasingly undiscriminating EIF audience who clap anything Fergus Linehan throws in their direction. I love opera but really fear for its future. [edited]


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