Edinburgh International Festival: Music review: Breaking the Waves, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

Breaking the Waves, King's Theatre
Breaking the Waves, King's Theatre
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We’re on the Isle of Skye in the 1970s. Scotland’s offshore oil boom is nascent and exciting, but with the prospect of prosperity comes the threat of change and a lost way of life to such small religiously-guarded communities.

Breaking the Waves, King’s Theatre * * * * *

A romance is struck between local girl Bess and oil-rig worker Jan. She is unstable, he’s an outsider. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

This gripping drama was depicted powerfully in Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves before composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek saw its raw potential as opera. Their adaption was first performed in Philadelphia three years ago. This new Scottish Opera production by Tom Morris – the work’s European premiere – confirms the view that Mazzoli and Vavrek struck operatic gold.

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Bess, stifled by the claustrophobic and misogynistic power of the church, spirals out of control under the wild sexual spell of her husband. Her awakening hits the buffers when he is paralysed in a serious accident. He insists she sleeps with other men, then describe the encounters to him. One extreme leads to another.

Mazzoli’s music, within its post-minimalist framework, centres wholly on Vavrek’s continuously spun narrative. As such it often strays into the aching world of Britten’s Peter Grimes, a lyrical intensity that serves the characters well. Sydney Mancasola’s Bess is a compelling tour de force, encompassing every emotional extreme, forcibly dominating a cast that is equally well-served by Wallis Giunta’s firmly grounded Dodo, Susan Bullock magisterial as the benignly stalwart mother, and Duncan Rock’s Jan, forever sinister beneath the macho bluster, among others.

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Stuart Stratford conducts the compact pit ensemble in a score that flits fluidly between symphonic density and lucid simplicity. The chorus act and sing with fearsome realism. Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set – symbolises the underlying puritanical austerity.

KEN WALTON

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