Festival Opera

Breaking the Waves

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

AFTER the unforgettable performance by Asmik Grigorian in Eugene Onegin, the only premiere opera production of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival has another soprano tour-de-force in Sydney Mancasola’s Bess McNeill, the complex central character in Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s controversial 1996 film.

Although the Californian Mancasola has an impressive list of regular repertoire roles on her resume, she has no real track record with contemporary music, which makes her work here especially impressive. On stage for almost the entire duration of the work, her vocal performance, which includes fine diction that hints at, but never overdoes, the story’s Scottish Highlands setting, is matched by fearless acting. She has fine support too, particularly from Duncan Rock as her Scandinavian rig-worker husband Jan, who is the more exposed of the two in the earlier sex scenes before he becomes the victim of an accident for which she blames herself.

Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek take a much less ambiguous approach to the story than that in the original film, and her evocative music, superbly played by a 27-piece ensemble conducted by Stuart Stratford, is beautifully matched by his text, which happily mixes naturalism with stylised vocabulary in pursuit of narrative clarity. Tom Morris’s production takes much the same approach, designer Soutra Gilmour’s revolving pyramid of pillars becoming by turns the coastline, harbour moorings, the Kirk interi-or, the off-shore rig and a cargo vessel, all artfully lit by Richard Howell. His simple flickering evocation of the rig-workers’ helicopter transport is another clever touch.

Mazzoli and Vavrek carefully set up the oppositional forces on Bess’s life, as well as leaving the ques-tion of the balance of her own mind open to question, and as the tragedy unfolds in the second and third acts, Mancasola’s committed interpretation only grows, Elgan Llyr Thomas adding another dimension to the supporting cast as Dr Richardson.

It is only towards the end of the production that the compelling storytelling starts to fall apart a little, with Mancasola having some awkward entrances and exits and the hitherto excellent male chorus becoming an odd zomboid threatening horde. The emotional impact of the denouement consequently lacks the raw focus that the rest of the evening had been so brilliantly building towards.