“Breaking the waves”, a film in 1996 and now an opera

parisdiaPerforming arts2 Comments

Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill) and Jarrett Ott (Jan Nyman) on their wedding night

If any of you remembers Lars Von Trier’s film “Breaking the wave“, starring Emma Watson, which won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1996, you will be sorry to have missed the amazing opera by American composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, which only played three times at Opera Comique this week.  Conducted by Mathieu Romano and directed by Tom Morris with video designer Will Duke, it was one of the great surprises of the spring in Paris. With Sydney Mancasola as Bess and Jarrett Ott as Jan. It first opened in Philadelphia in 2016, won the Music Critics Association of North American Award in 2017 and was then recreated by the Scottish Opera for the 2019 Edinburgh Festival which toured it since in tis actual version. The dark story is illuminated by a fabulous set design and lighting.

Bess and Jan get married in front of the Calvinist community, Susan Bullock (Mother), Wallis Giunta (Dodo McNeill), Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill), Jarrett Ott (Jan Nyman), Andrew Nolen (Councilman), and choeur Aedes, photo Stefan Brion

If I had to mention only one image from the whole evening, it would be the black and white blinking lighting, produced to picture the landing of a helicopter which brought Jan back from his drilling platform, for his wedding with Bess. It is electrifying and announces madness and a major storm at the same time. While the music is very pleasing and the voices extraordinary, what struck me the most is the decor and all the visual effects including the costumes. The film was so beautiful, shot in the Scottish (and Danish) Northern light with the omnipresent sea, that besides the sound of the sea and the musical whimsical effects, one feels a little deprived of natural beauty and wilderness on stage.

Wallis Giunta (Dodo McNeill), Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill), photo S. Brion

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek had already worked together in “Song from the Uproar” in 2012, and have produced two new operas since, but the composer (trained at Yale School of Music)  admits to having been completely fascinated  by the film when she saw it at 14. Through music, she tried to explore in depth the psychology of each character. The opera takes place on the Isle of Skye in Northern Scotland, where the violence of the landscape and the sound level among the rocks and the cliffs struck her. The church bells which are broken in the story resonate in the orchestra as well as the waves.

The sacrifice of Bess saves her husband Jan who resurrects at the end of the show. One never really knows whether she has psychiatric problems (a reference is made multiple times of her stays in the hospital), but her determination and her naïve love are the power behind the story. The secondary roles are excellent with Dodo, her girlfriend, being constantly at her side. There is true violence in her relationship to Jan and she believes that his accident occurred because she had prayed God to bring him back to shore…

Sydney Mancasola (Bess McNeill), choeur Aedes, photo S. Brion

One only wishes that the opera is produced again in the future. The public was so enthusiastic that it might happen?

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2 Comments on ““Breaking the waves”, a film in 1996 and now an opera”

  1. Exact, la surprise de la saison lyrique parisienne 2022/2023. Dans ce lieu de création qu’est l’Opéra Comique, celui de Carmen, de Pelléas.

  2. Bonjour Laure,

    J’avaIs adoré ce film et acheté la bande sonore en CD que j’écoUte souvent avec émotion.
    Si au moins cet opéra pouvait se programmer chez nous en Espagne…!

    Merci de toutes vos nouvelles hebdomadaires, qui me permettent de voyager en pensées!


    Catherine Sagnier

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