Breaking the Waves

by Ana María Díaz de Lewine,

Translation into English by Alan Lewine,

September 27, 2016, 7.30pm, Perelman Theater, Philadelphia.

Missy Mazzoli, composer; Royce Vavrek, libretto; Stephen Osgood, conductor; James Darrah, director; Adam Rigg, scenic design; Elizabeth Braden, chorus master; Chrisi Karvonides, costume design; Adam Larsen, projections; Pablo Santiago, lighting. Kiera Duffy, Bess McNeill; Eve Gigliotti, Dodo McNeill; Marcus DeLoach, minister; Zachary James, Terry; John Moore, Jan Nyman; John Miles, Sadistic Sailor; David Portillo, Dr. Richardson; Patricia Schuman, Madre de Betsy; George Ross Somervill, The Runt; Daniel Taylor, The Stone Thrower.  Chorus of church elders, oil rig workers, voice of god and towns people. 

Based on the 1990s movie of the same title by Lars von Trier, in September the Philadelphia Opera presented the world premiere of Breaking the Waves set on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in the early 1970s, tells the story of the dependent relationship between young Bess and her husband Jan. Shortly after their marriage, Jan was disabled and left a bed-ridden quadriplegic from a horrible accident on the oil rig where he worked. To maintain his sense of life and sexuality, Jan asks the innocent Bess to have multiple sexual relationships with strangers and then return to describe her sexual experiences to him in detail later. At first, Beth said no, but then gave in to his pleas and became known as the slut of the community until eventually she suffered social exile from her family and community. A doctor tries to help Beth, explaining that in the early stages of a marriage it is common to suffer depression. Beth soon dies after a violent rape. We see the hypocrisies of the church and the towns people, who not only persecuted Beth, but also Dodo, her supporter and sister-in-law. 

Kiera Duffy enters an excellent performance as Bess, absolutely uninhibited (and often totally naked) in her scenes. She stays always in character presenting Bess’s growth and development, bravely reflecting Bess’s emotional instability and descent into prurient and careless madness from the “proper” young Bess in love and her first sexual awakening in the early scenes. “Bravissima” Kiera Duffy! 

Likewise, we must call “brava” to Eve Gigliottias Dodo, Bess’s only friend, sister-in-law and supporter, whose voice was magnificently well-rounded and strong.

The rest of the cast was also impeccable and strong in their performance.

We enjoyed the interesting music of composer Missy Mazzoli, a rising star of the American contemporary music scene. Although the music was at times somewhat repetitive with an excessive use of bells and small percussive effects, the result demonstrated a finely developed sense of harmony and orchestration. She might have benefited from a larger orchestral ensemble with some instruments doubled, but the 15 piece chamber orchestra, including some synthesizer and electric guitar, performed very well. 

Overall the production communicated an intense feeling of discomfort and anxiety consistent with its engagement of the tragic story portrayed. This seemed like a 21st century update of La Traviata. “Bravissimo” to Opera Philadelphia for its courage and foresight in commissioning and programming forward-looking new works to bring opera to our era.

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