Quite an epiphany, the sound of church bells over the empty sea at the close of Breaking the Waves, and after the rough stuff that comes before, you need it. Drawn from the movie that earned Lars von Trier the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1996, the adaptation by Missy Mazzoli (music) and Royce Vavrek (libretto) had critics at Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere in 2016 scrambling for superlatives. Directed in spare yet piercing style by James Darrah, the production is showing now on the company’s streaming channel.
In roles created on film by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, Kiera Duffy appears as Bess, a needy waif who talks to God and gets harsh answers, and John Moore is Jan, the roustabout who nearly perishes on his offshore oil rig during what ought to be their honeymoon. Immobilized in his hospital bed, Jan drives Bess to desperate, masochistic sex with other men, subsisting on the X-rated details.
It’s not La Traviata, but say this for Mazzoli: she knows all about writing for the voice, in modes conversational as well as ecstatic, and her chamber ensemble of just 15 instrumentalists (notably including piano) punches way above its weight, rising in darksome splendor to the pitch of grand opera. How telling that Mazzoli’s maiden voyage in opera was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met in 1999—and how tantalizing to know that she’s now at work on a Met commission drawn from the Man Booker Prize–winning Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, in whose pages gentle tragedy, supernatural high jinks, and a luminous humanism combine. The date of the premiere for that one may lie a ways off.
Breaking the Waves is available for streaming through August 31 on the Opera Philadelphia Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii