There has to be an imperative for translating film into opera. It happens often enough. Take Olga Neuwirth’s Lost Highway or Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel or Nico Muhly’s Marnie. When the idea of reworking Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) first arose, the American composer Missy Mazzoli said “absolutely not”. Anyone who has seen this epic of phenomenal gloom, in which Scottish Calvinism, physical paralysis and graphic sexuality join in sacrificial congress, might reckon her instinct wise. The suggestion came from her librettist, the evidently persuasive Royce Vavrek. The three-act, full-length opera had its first performance at Opera Philadelphia in 2016.
On Wednesday, Edinburgh international festival presented the European premiere, in a new production by Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures, imaginatively directed by Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris and, with equal prowess, conducted by Scottish Opera’s music director, Stuart Stratford. That Mazzoli and Vavrek had something remarkable to add was immediately clear. Stripped of the lowering skies and desolate outdoors of the film, the action gained in intimacy and psychological depth. The misogyny of the film recedes, still part of the landscape – especially in the dozen-strong male voice chorus of church elders – but no longer the foreground. The central character is Bess McNeill, who marries Jan Nyman, an oil-rig worker who is then disabled in an accident. He asks her to sleep with other men to keep their love, or his fantasies, alive, with shocking consequence.
Adhering closely to the original, the opera is long, harrowing and unblinking, yet kept buoyant and absorbing by Mazzoli’s fluid score. Written for large chamber ensemble (soloists from the orchestra of Scottish Opera), the music is tonal and lyrical, with lurches into dissonance and atmospheric invention. Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and Britten are touchstones. Alongside throbbing, pulsating rhythms, Mazzoli draws from a rich treasury of alien whirs, clanks, clicks and bangs to convey both an abstract, and literal, soundworld: of the rig, hospital monitors, Bess’s own, racing heart. The sea is ever-present, high flute or piccolo conjuring the cry of wheeling gulls against crashing waves. Plucked harp, twanging electric guitar and synthesiser add distinctive colour. Mazzoli (b1980), whose achievements include other opera, as well as songs for the TV series Mozart in the Jungle, ranges easily between psalm singing or dance music, low brass counterpoint or the queasy strings, now glissando, now spiky, of a mind in chaos.
A top-class cast is led by the outstanding American soprano Sydney Mancasola as God-fearing Bess, febrile and loving, and Edinburgh-born baritone Duncan Rock as strange, handsome Jan. Wallis Giunta (Dodo), Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Dr Richardson) and Susan Bullock (Mother) lead the excellent ensemble. The versatile, revolving set – by Soutra Gilmour and her design team – switched nimbly from church, to hospital, to oil rig to commercial ship, to seashore. Reservations may remain about the story’s ending, a miracle too far, but not about the value of this operatic version. The production now tours worldwide, from Adelaide to New York.
An empty glade and grassy hummocks surrounded by trees, half-illuminated to give a sense of dawn to twilight anytime: enough to suggest a Russian summer in the country. The director Barrie Kosky has always favoured single sets. He prefers to create pattern and variety through his performers. This green “room”, designed by Rebecca Ringst with lighting by Franck Evin, was Kosky’s choice for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Admired when first seen at the Komische Oper, Berlin, in 2016, the production won rapturous applause in the first of two performances in Edinburgh.
From the opening notes, sharply and diligently etched by the Latvian conductor Ainārs Rubiķis, idiomatically played by the Komische Oper orchestra, it was clear that no detail would be neglected, musically or dramatically. Every aspect of this staging was perceptive, the familiar made tender and new. The older women’s gossip at the start, seemingly trivial but freighted with heartache; the drunken carelessness that leads to Lensky’s death; the change in Onegin from suave egotist to suffering lover, all were handled with fidelity. This most emotionally perfect of operas was in deft hands.
Kosky chose to have the dawn duel run straight on from the party scene that provokes it, so delaying the usual placing of the interval. This made sense chronologically. The events are only hours apart, the tragic folly underlined by this proximity. Yet musically it caused a jolt. There seems to be a full stop as the party ends in shocked chaos, before the opera darkens. You could argue the case either way. Cast and chorus were uniformly impressive. Aleš Briscein as Lensky, capable of singing pianissimo with immense beauty while lying on his back, and Günter Papendell as Onegin, combined subtlety and veracity. The night belonged to the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, who turned heads as an astonishing Salome at Salzburg last year and also sang at the opening night of this season’s Proms. Innocent, composed, wretched, dignified, impassioned, she was the ideal Tatyana. They come no better.
Star ratings (out of five)
Breaking the Waves ★★★★
Eugene Onegin ★★★★