Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Breaking the Waves
Opera Philadelphia
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's review of Turandot and Rebecca's review of Stupid Fucking Bird

Kiera Duffy and John Moore
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier
As an opera lover who hungers for new works, I often find myself disappointed by the qualities of most contemporary operas. There is no shortage of them, with the finest companies around the world constantly commissioning the hottest composers to develop long-form operas for their stages. Yet something is often missing: the score doesn't serve the story, the libretto is puzzling, the performers are not well cast. Encountering a new piece that is an ideal confluence of music and text is exceedingly rare.

When Opera Philadelphia first announced its commission of an opera based on Lars Van Trier's film Breaking the Waves, I admit I scratched my head. Would this stark and searing story of love and devotion work as an opera? I wasn't sure. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was ideal source material for an opera, that genre of outsized passion and swelling emotion. And the resultant work—with a score by Missy Mazzoli and libretto by Royce Vavrek—is a stunning success.

Breaking the Waves follows Bess McNeill, a pious young woman from an insular, Calvinist community in rural Scotland. Bess has a history of psychological problems, which seem to be ameliorated when she marries Jan, a handsome outsider who works on an oil rig. Bess and Jan enjoy connubial bliss until he is severely paralyzed in an accident on the rig, leaving him with little will to live. The degrees to which Bess will go to save her husband's life precipitate her downfall, yet she approaches them with utter faith.

The role of Bess is sung by Kiera Duffy, a young American soprano who heretofore has specialized in Baroque music. To say that her performance is a tour de force would be a gross understatement. This is a strenuous role, requiring dramatic commitment, pinpoint vocal precision, and stamina—Bess is on stage for nearly all of the opera's three hours. Duffy has all of this, and more.

Bess has a unique relationship with God, which underscores both her conviction and her psychosis. In the film, this is portrayed in dialogues between Bess and God, in which Bess roughly alters her voice to represent God speaking through her. Mazzoli and Vavrek use this same technique in the opera, with the addition of a male chorus responding in counterpoint. The effect is chilling: we see Bess, meek and mild, overwhelmed by a mass of men commanding her to follow the righteous path. Because these men also portray the elders of the church, which is the center of life in their village, a keen duality is established: these men are God, and they preside over Bess's life, watching and judging.

Duffy's artistry is astounding. She does not just sing and act her music—she lives it. It is impossible not to be struck by how immediate and electric her performance is. She is an impeccable musician with a bright, high soprano, which she uses to spin legato lines that are both elegant and emotionally packed. In her first aria, "His name is Jan," Duffy sings that her betrothed's name "sounds like church bells," and we hear the joy and exultation of those bells in her voice. Later, when Bess angrily calls Jan a cripple, we shudder at the cruelty she allows herself to momentarily feel for the man she loves. The film version of Breaking the Waves is responsible for launching the career of Emily Watson; if there is any justice, this instantly legendary performance will do the same for Duffy.

Although there is no doubt whom the star of the evening is, it helps that Duffy is surrounded by a fine cadre of singing actors. I use that term deliberately, because every cast member works so diligently to present their character that it would be unfair to simply recognize them for their voices. Baritone Jon Moore convincingly conveys Jan's virility in the early days of his marriage to Bess, as well as his hopelessness when he can no longer pleasure his wife. David Portillo makes a strong impression as the sympathetic doctor caring for Jan; his securely high tenor ideally matches Duffy's vocal prowess, and a scene they share together in the second act is as beautifully sung as it is harrowingly acted. The veteran soprano Patricia Schuman is appropriately austere as Bess's severe mother, yet her performance is not without compassion for her troubled daughter. Zachary James is memorable in the small role of Terry, Jan's friend from the rig.

Perhaps the most important secondary role is that of Dodo, Bess's beloved sister-in-law. It is established that Dodo, like Jan, is an outsider and that she faced similar scrutiny when she came to marry Bess's brother. Because of her outsider status, Dodo never wavers in her love and support for Bess, which culminates in a harrowing arioso in the opera's final moments. The role of Dodo is sung by Eve Gigliotti, who proves once again that she is one of the most exciting young mezzo sopranos currently singing. Her voice is supple and distinctive, and she imbues Dodo with a sweet nature and a strong will. When she excoriates the church elders that "not one of you has the right to condemn Bess," such is her conviction that you almost believe they will listen.

Credit is due to Opera Philadelphia for assembling such a spectacular cast, and to director James Darragh for making sure they work together so seamlessly. The physical production perfectly captures the mood of the opera. Adam Rigg's monochromatic set conveys the harsh life lived in the village, and Chrisi Karvonides's period-specific costumes (the opera is set in the 1970s) represent the divide between the pious townspeople and the outsiders from the rig. Pablo Santiago's evocative lighting design is appropriately unsettling.

Mazzoli's score is written for a small orchestra of fifteen musicians (conducted by Steven Osgood), with the intriguing addition of electric guitar. Her music suits the story perfectly, with dissonance giving way to surprisingly melodic stretches. For example, Bess and Jan's love duet, "Your body is a map," gradually shifts from contrapuntal lines to a soaring harmony. Duffy and Moore blend their voices together as Jan and Bess become one. It's a glorious moment—one of many in this exciting score, which is complemented at every turn by Vavrek's poetic, insightful text.

It is easy for many uninformed people to regard opera as a dead or dying art, or as little more than an excuse for rich doyennes to put on their evening frocks and sip champagne during those impossibly long intermissions. Yet, at the performance of Breaking the Waves I attended, the audience was composed of the young and the old, the tattooed and the tailored, and the excitement that permeated throughout the Perelman Theater was palpable. After three hours of difficult and rapturous music, this mixed crowd erupted in cathartic applause. It was clear to all that they had just witnessed something truly astonishing. Breaking the Waves is not simply the opera of the year—it is the most important American opera in recent memory. It is the opera we have been waiting for. And I'm glad that decades from now, I'll be able to say that I was there to see it.

Breaking the Waves continues at the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center (300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia) through Saturday, October 1, 2016. Tickets ($59-149) can be purchased online at

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