Review: Breaking the Waves

American composer Missy Mazzoli's operatic take on Lars von Trier's gruelling tragedy is full of compassion and lyricism

musicals review (edinburgh) | Read in About 2 minutes
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Sydney Mancasola as Bess McNeill in Breaking the Waves rehearsals
Photo by Julie Howden
Published 27 Aug 2019

The films of Lars von Trier vibrate at a frequency higher than that of real life, their heartache more pointed and all-consuming. In other words, they’re a dream for opera.

Breaking the Waves is particularly ripe for adaptation, with its baroque tale of Bess, a good presbyterian girl from a dogmatic Skye community, discovering the joy of sex and love with a roguish outsider (Jan-from-the-rigs), only for that passion to curdle in the most tragic of fashions. An accident at work leaves Jan paralysed, and the God-fearing Bess gets it in her head that the only way for her husband to recover is for her to partake in debasing sexual acts with other men.

Director Tom Morris stages Bess’s downward spiral on a spectacular spinning stage of 13 monoliths, which become, with the help of fluid animated projections, Bess’s dour church, Jan’s clanging oil rig and a rusty red boat filled with brutish sailors. As Bess, Sydney Mancasola is mesmerising, her expressive vocals setting her apart from the more naturalistic singing of the other cast members.

American composer Missy Mazzoli’s lyrical opera sticks faithfully to the structure of von Trier’s tragedy while infusing it with more compassion. The self-admonishing chinwags that Bess has with God in the film are present here but are accompanied by a chorus of men with bare torsos covered in scars, who are clearly not saintly, the suggestion being that Bess’s degradation is not part of some divine plan, as von Trier's film implies. That the performers playing the chorus double as the pious leaders of Bess’s church and Jan’s lusty rig worker colleagues adds to the sense that Bess’s downfall isn’t due to holy intervention, but the result of rank misogyny.

Breaking the Waves, King's Theatre, run ended