Review: Breaking the Waves at Festival Theatre, Adelaide

Review By Lisa Lanzi


Misogyny, dour proselytising church elders, mental illness, despair. How ironic that a modern opera should portray these elements in light of humanity’s current global situation. Co-produced by Opera Ventures, Scottish Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique and in association with The Adelaide Festival, Breaking The Waves is a contemporary opera based on Lars Von Trier’s 1996 film of the same name. The work was originally staged at Opera Philadelphia in 2016 and had its European premiere by Scottish Opera in an international co-production at the Edinburgh International Festival, 2019.


Both film and opera explore the mostly dark side of love, loss and madness set amongst an insular and devout Calvinist community on the Isle of Skye. Still grieving and unstable after the death of her brother, fragile Bess McNeil (luminous Californian soprano Sydney Mancasola) marries oil rig worker Jan, an outsider considered vastly unsuitable. Bess becomes increasingly depressed when Jan returns to work on the rig and prays fervently for him to be returned to her permanently. A terrible accident leaves Jan bed-ridden and paraplegic leading Bess to believe the tragedy is entirely her fault for loving him so much and pleading to God for his return.

Recumbent and suicidal Jan, addled by brain trauma and drugs or driven by grotesque fantasies (perhaps both?) urges his wife to make love with other men to nurture Jan and Bess’ relationship as he is unable to, then return to his hospital bed to relate the details in full. For Bess there is only a tumultuous descent into madness, expulsion from her male-dominated church, the community and family, but throughout, a vehement belief that by her extreme actions Jan will be cured. Within Beth’s twisted reasoning it appears Jan’s state of health is directly affected by the success or not of her sexual encounters.


Overall this is a thrilling though bleak production but sadly paints yet another female as victim, scapegoat and martyr while the men survive and flourish. Set in the 1970s, phrases like “control your words girl” and “women endure” are peppered throughout as attempts are made to subdue Bess. Mancasola is on stage almost constantly and meets the demands of the role with perfection. Her acting is remarkable and develops intelligently as the character progresses through the course of her emotional rollercoaster. Mancasola also moves with grace and beauty in the opening and closing scenes, no doubt due to her early training as a dancer. Her lyric soprano is a joy to listen to and emotionally connected to the narrative; her stamina must certainly be immense.


British/Australian baritone Duncan Rock (graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and National Opera Studio, London) performs Jan with a gentle strength and beautiful vocal tone. The complex character path is not an easy one to portray given that he dooms the love of his life to sexual misadventure, violence and eventually death while he recovers from his grave injuries. Impressive though to sing as he does from the horizontal position for some of the performance.


Both Wallis Giunta as Dodo, friend and sister-in-law to Bess, and Orla Boylan as Bess’ mother were wonderful, both exuding stage presence and total commitment to their dramatic roles. The supporting male cast members also contributed much to the production. Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Doctor Richardson, Byron Jackson as Terry and Freddie Tong as the Church Council Elder all gave stellar performances. Also notable were the male chorus of twelve who portrayed Church Councilmen, dead sailors and other roles.


Composer Missy Mazzoli has created a demanding musical score that was played live by soloists from The Orchestra of Scottish Opera led by conductor Stuart Stratford. The complex, dramatic and sometimes uncomfortable musical language is filled with yearning lyrical elements but also segues into dissonance, sometimes in counterpoint to the exacting vocal lines. There are also Musique concrete elements, whistles, clangs, bangs and jarring sounds that add to the atmosphere of tension and serve to illuminate moments in the hospital, by the sea, in church or even the interior monologue of a character. The libretto is from Mazzoli’s long-time collaborator Royce Vavrek and the story stays mostly true to the film’s vision. Opera News claims Vavrek is ‘shaking up’ the world of new opera, delving into more realistic language and challenging stories, coming as he does from a musical theatre background.


Direction by Tom Morris is thoughtful and spare and closely linked to the spectacular design components by Soutra Gilmour, creative lighting by Richard Howell and image projection from Will Duke. The stage is set with monumental, squared, wedge-topped pillars of differing heights which indicate cliffs, church interior, boat or hospital as required. Placed on a revolve and aided by projected visuals and genius lighting effects this set is impressionistic, sometimes abstract but always convincing as it revolves to reveal a new scene or location. It is a testament to the creative team that all the design elements worked so harmoniously with the performance aspects as they could have easily dominated, such was their power.


As a three act contemporary dramatic opera, Breaking The Waves is a triumph musically, theatrically and visually. It also raised many questions around guilt, mental health, the vulnerable in our society and the community around them that should be aiding in recovery rather than making a situation more difficult.

Image Supplied


All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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