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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Opera Review: A Sea of Troubles

Breaking the Waves sails into New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jan (John Moore) and Bess (Kiera Duffy) go to the altar in the first act of Breaking the Waves.
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier © 2016 Opera Philadelphia.
The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is a master of human misery, exploring the depths of men and women in a four decade career. His 1996 film Breaking the Waves is the inspiration for the opera of the same name by composer Missy Mazzoli. First mounted last fall at Opera Philadelphia, Waves is the centerpiece of the 2017 PROTOTYPE Festival, celebrating contemporary opera here in New York City. It is the second opera based on von Trier's "Golden Heart Trilogy", following Selma Jezkov√°, which composer Poul Ruders based on Dancer in the Dark.

Monday night's performance at NYU's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts was held before a star-studded audience, with singers, conductors and other luminaries in eager attendance. They were outshined, however by this incandescent work, which tells the heart-rending story of the short life and bloody death of Bess McNeil (Kiera Duffy), a dreamer who falls in love, meets personal tragedy on stark terms and yet finds the kind of otherworldly redemption that can only be done on the operatic stage.

This is strong stuff. Bess is one of the few women in a stark, xenophobic village on the Isle of Skye, surrounded by a community of strict Calvinists who removed the church bells from their church. She marries Jan, a Norwegian oil rig worker, who is severely injured in an accident. Paralyzed and bed-ridden, Jan pleads with Bess to explore her sexuality with other men, sending her on a Lulu-like course through the small community. Her sex life leads to her disfigurement, excommunication and death, in that order. Jan survives to mourn his wife's memory and is shown to be partially cured at the opera's end.

Ms. Duffy is the heart and soul of this work, giving a gutsy performance of great acting and vocal range. Her Bess is adamantine, with a bright, high soprano that conveys a kaleidoscope of information and must also play the voice of God that speaks inside her head. The challenges include girlish infatuation, womanly love and the steepening slope of her character's desperate downward spiral. The extraordinary singing is married to an acting performance filled with detail and nuance, and commitment to fearless choices in service of this difficult story.

Although he spends half of this opera lying in a hospital bed, baritone John Moore showed an equal degree of commitment and intensity in the role of Jan. His accident was handled with terrifying realism, and he spent the second act of the opera in a neck brace with the occasional application of oxygen equipment.  Mr. Moore is a big strapping singer with a handsome, dark-colored voice, perfectly suited to the outsider who in his peculiar way, saves Bess even though her ultimate redemption comes after her death.

As Dodo McNeill, Bess' sister-in-law, mezzo Eve Gigliotti is a part of that redemption. She gave strong support, moving to the limelight with Bess' death. Jan has his own support in the form of Terry (bass Matthew Curran) whose entrance at the wedding provided the opera's one real laugh. His offhand remark about the lack of bells in the church turns out to be a key plot point. Other players were tenor Domenic Armstrong as Jan's doctor and Theodora Hanslowe as Bess' mother. The chorus were versatile and central to the show, appearing as Bible-thumping elders (both real and projected in Bess' imagination) rough-and-tumble oil workers and finally, Bess' parade of lovers ending with her murderers.

There is redemption in this story, as shown in Ms. Mazzoli's rich and detail-filled score. The work uses leitmotivic ideas, huge, crashing chords and even electric guitar, playing chords that sound like a heavy brigade of trombones and tuba. There is even one point in Act II where Miss Mazzoli resorts to disco music. There are jarring moments throughout: Jan's accident, his later heart attack and the murder of Bess. The finale ends in a kind of redemption and triumph, as Bess is buried at sea and church bells ring out in a village that had none.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.