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Stage Door: Believing in Breaking the Waves, the Opera

Daniel here to discuss the latest transfer from big screen to live stage. 

Bess McNeill, the golden-hearted islander at the center of Breaking the Waves, is a woman of astonishing faith. It is the source of her resilience and it is her undoing, though the salacious facts of her downfall can distract from the strength of her conviction. However, the whirlwind of anonymous sex, medical trauma and social exclusion that characterize the second half of the film do not undo the romantic catechism of its first scene. 

Bess sits in church, beset by the stone-faced Calvinist elders of her community. They demand to know why she wishes to marry an outsider, an act they clearly interpret as a spiritual betrayal. She responds to their questions with an irrepressible joy. Her confidence in her own love, as well as that of her fiancé, is as compelling a testament of faith as has ever been put to film. 

Or, as the case may be, as has ever been put to music...

The operatic adaptation of Breaking the Waves, which had its world premiere on September 22nd in Philadelphia, opens with the same words: “His name is Jan.” It has become an aria, a pure musical testament to Bess’s complete faith in her upcoming marriage. “His name sounds like church bells,” she observes, and sings it accordingly.

The music, by composer Missy Mazzoli, is not always so shimmering and hopeful. The words, by librettist Royce Vavrek, are not always so spiritually clear. But the aria does represent the entire work in one significant way. This isn’t simply a faithful staging of Von Trier’s film, but a remarkably innovative adaptation of the original material to the unique artistic capability of opera.

Now, it might be hard to imagine such a rich musical work could be drawn from source material so deeply grounded in the strictures of Dogme 95. The lack of visual opulence, or even a musical score, thwarts much of the cinematic atmosphere that is usually described as “operatic.”

Yet Von Trier’s film has quite a unique soundscape, with many details hidden amid the crushing power of the wind and waves. Emily Watson and Katrin Cartlidge make full use of their voices, traveling up and down their registers from whispers to screams. Watson in particular makes many little sounds, high-pitched hums and squeaks that emerge almost of their own accord. Her character has found ways to express her inner music without totally upending the silent society around her.

Soprano Kiera Duffy, tasked with portraying Bess in the opera, doesn’t squeak. But she does fully embody the unbearable lightness of the character, matching Watson’s whispered effervescence with a lightness of tone and a lofty, almost unearthly sound. Without the benefit of the close-up, Duffy cannot recreate the innocent universe hidden in Watson’s eyes, but she shapes equally powerful moments of intimacy with the color of her voice.

It also helps that the cast is unencumbered by the grimy, brown coloring of Von Trier’s film. The opera’s production, by set designer Adam Rigg and lighting designer Adam Larsen, does not replicate those grainy visuals. Instead, they found inspiration in the film’s chapter titles. These digitally distorted landscapes, like Pre-Raphaelite riffs on the craggy Scottish seaside, are the only magical presence prior to the concluding bells. The opera locates the entirety of the plot into these spaces.

Video projection is used to blend Bess, Jan and their community into a whirlpool of cool colors, shadowy blues and purples that occasionally crack and bleed with the black oil of the coastal rig. Von Trier’s rigid, distancing palette is replaced by a tempest that envelops the audience along with the characters.

This creative license, taking elements of the original work and expounding upon them with the tools of operatic stagecraft, reaches its height in Bess’s conversation with God. In the film, these are expressed entirely through Watson’s performance.

They are instantly coded in the context of her mental illness, and appear not unlike other cinematic depictions of multiple personality. Watson plays the part of God herself, by closing her eyes and lowering the tone of her voice. Against the grainy browns of Von Trier’s decidedly non-magical Scotland, it is hard to see anything but madness.

In the opera, these scenes have a much more clearly supernatural quality. The words of God are still sung by Bess, but she is not alone. Mazzoli accompanies the voice with the electric guitar, an instantly transformative instrument even within this already tumultuous score. Its sound is too different to come within this modest character, but seems to strike down from the heavens. 

Bess is not left alone on stage, either. Each time she sings the voice of God, an all-male chorus, usually dressed as the church elders, echoes her words. Though they are also a strong presence in Von Trier’s film, they never appear during private moments of divine channeling. Their presence in the opera, in which only the power of Duffy’s voice prevents their domination of the scene, utterly changes the experience. Mazzoli has drawn a much clearer connection between Bess’s personal God and the vengeful religious authority of her strict community.

The effect on the audience could not be more profound. It relates to another statement of faith, a conversation from the film that Vavrek carries over into the opera. “God gives everyone a talent,” Bess says to Dr. Richardson. He asks her what hers might be and sneeringly suggests that it can’t be her promiscuity. “My talent,” she responds, “is that I can believe. 

In Von Trier’s film, we see her believe. From the distance afforded by its stylistic austerity, we watch, aghast, as she follows her belief to a violent end. The detachment is common in the director’s work, and is often cited as Exhibit A in the case that his films have always been cold, misogynist portrayals of masochistic

In Mazzoli’s opera, we do not simply observe Bess’s belief. The electric guitar strikes us like a spiritual lightning bolt. The chorus of the oppressive presbytery ushers us into her consciousness, that of a woman forced to patiently listen for hours in a church where she is herself not allowed to speak. We hear her universe. We believe with her.

Emily Watson's Oscar nominated in her film debut "Breaking the Waves"

Given the power of the experience, it seems immaterial whether this is a feminist reclamation of Von Trier’s characters or a fresh interpretation of the feminist subtext that was already there. Mazzoli’s opera is not just a derivative work designed to reflect on a 20-year-old film. As other critics have said, it already sits on a shortlist of the best operas of the 21st century.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it shares the soul of Bess McNeill with Lars Von Trier and Emily Watson. Like all great adaptations, the opera opens up new ways of interpreting the original work, and vice versa. The two are essential companions, and as time goes on they will continue to enrich each other with every screening and performance. They’re a testament, not only to the continued lifeblood of opera, but the rich potential of artistic cross-pollination in general.

The Opera Philadelphia production of Breaking the Waves continues through October 1st. It will then come to New York City for three performances in January, as part of Prototype Festival.

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Reader Comments (10)

This sounds as good as it does unusual, and that's a good thing.

September 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

OMG I need to see this. I love this movie with all my heart, and I cherish Emily Watson's performance as one of the top 5 of all time.

September 30, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

This sounds amazing, I'd love for it to come to the UK. Emily Watson is my favourite actress I adore her performance in Breaking The Waves. I wish she had won the Oscar, I really want to see more of her in TV/movies

September 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBeau Baker

A part of me still can't sleep at night, knowing Emily Watson did not win the Oscar that year.

September 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

I was just talking about this film in class today! Oh. I'd love to see this!

September 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I don't know. I love the film but I'm not sure if I want to see an operatic version of the story.

September 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Such a great article. Thanks, Dan!

October 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

I don't know. I love the film but I'm not sure if I want to see an operatic version of the story.

The movie itself is already operatic.

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Sorry McDormand but Watson DESERVES the Oscar! I'm so glad New York Film Critic recognizes a gem when they see one. Von Trier has never been better too....

Best debut ever, Its a shame she never quite matches up to her astonishing debut (Citizen Kane, anyone?) & sinking into obscurity now

October 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Brenda Blethyn is better than her category.

October 3, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

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