Review: Breaking the Waves at King's Theatre

Sex and Death, what more archetypal ‘big issues’ could there be for an opera? The European premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s second opera unashamedly takes on some of the potentially most clichéd operatic tropes, grapples with them, reinterprets them, and emerges with something that earns its place on this well-trodden ground.

Breaking the Waves is an adaptation of the film of the same name by that most operatic of cinema auteurs, Lars Von Trier. It concerns our protagonist Bess’s doomed conflict between her status as a sexual being and the chauvinistic pressures of ultra-religious village life in 1970s Stornaway. We know from the start that this probably isn’t going to end well. 

Mazzoli’s soaring vocal lines are a truly wonderful thing and there are some striking moments in the instrumental music, but elsewhere gestures of repeated notes and widely spaced chords are overused and lose their power. The orchestra is augmented with an electric guitar, but this is criminally underused, relegated to adding a gnarly sound to certain darker passages.

The cast are uniformly strong. Sydney Mancasola’s Bess is wonderfully nuanced in character even if her Scottish accent drifts a bit, while the chorus shift between their contrasting roles effortlessly. The monolithic staging features a striking and versatile set by Soutra Gilmour, combined with some impressive projection by Will Duke. It’s one of the show’s best features.

Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek have been very upfront about wanting to explore the ‘big issues’ and create ‘a new kind of heroine, a new kind of opera’, to quote the programme. The resulting piece is ultimately not as radical as they would lead us to believe, but it is engaging and moving all the same.

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