West Edge Opera's Breaking the Waves
August 11, 2019
* Notes *
Yesterday West Edge Opera gave the West Coast premiere of Missy Mazzoli's compelling Breaking the Waves. The bleak plot based on the film by Lars von Trier makes for good theater and the singing was powerful, especially from the lead, soprano Sara LeMesh.
Set in Scotland in the 1970s, the dark narrative concerns a young woman who marries a Norwegian from outside her Calvinist community. Mazzoli's music deftly weaves together sweeping vocal lines and many orchestral textures, including an electric guitar that nearly jarred me from my seat at first. I liked how she could use sounds that are referred to in the text or part of the setting without being trite, whether it is church bells or oil drills. She skillfully juggles different voices singing together, like the duet in Act I where Bess asks Jan to quit his job on the rig and stay with her that turns into a trio when her mother threatens to send her back to the hospital if she can't control her "moods."
The space, the Bridge Yard, was less of an issue for this opera for some reason. I don't know if it is because I'd never heard this music before, and had no expectations of how it should sound, or if these singers simply had voices that could cut through the orchestration better. In any case, soprano Sara LeMesh (pictured with chorus, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a piercing yet ethereal sound that works well for the girlish Bess. This character is central to the piece, and LeMesh is sympathetic. It could have easily gone the other way, Bess is co-dependent, depressed, and pathetic. She suffers relentlessly but perhaps because she is thinking of others rather than herself, she is engaging rather than annoying.
The rest of the cast supported LeMesh well, nearly all the characters have many different sides and get to portray a range of emotions. From baritone Robert Wesley Mason, whose Jan is heartbreaking, to tenor Alex Boyer who plays Dr. Richardson with convincing sensitivity. Bass-baritone Brandon Bell is much needed comic relief as Jan's friend Terry in Act I, and shows a gentler side in Acts II and III. Soprano Kristen Clayton is imposing as Bess' mother Mrs. McNeill, but her love for her daughter is clear in the end. Most impressive is mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich (pictured with Sara LeMesh, photograph by Cory Weaver) as sister-in-law Dodo McNeill. Her tender warmth and sturdy voice is persuasive.
* Tattling *
I recognized quite a few people in the audience and even on the stage, it seemed like most of my Bay Area opera-going friends were in attendance. There was little to complain about as far as electronic noise, there was some rustling behind me in Act II.
My companions, like me, had not seen the film on which this opera is based and were somewhat confused about where it was set and why the vowels were so odd. There is a line of Scots Gaelic in Act I, but I guess not everyone is up on Celtic languages, and I don't know that the mostly North American singers were exactly on point with the Scottish accent either.