Breaking the Waves at the Opéra Comique: An Inside Look

  • March 15, 2023
  • Parisian theatre
  • Niamh Daly

Breaking the Waves at the Opéra Comique 2023

Lars von Trier’s Cannes award-winning 1996 film Breaking the Waves was hailed as a triumph of cinéma verité, adopting an intimate observational approach to a deeply affecting Scottish-set tragedy. Immersive by nature, Von Trier’s use of score and sound was inoffensive, opting for a reduced soundtrack that highlighted the desolate Hebredian environment.

This year, the Opéra Comique presents Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s 2016 operatic adaptation of the same name – a stunningly raw portrayal of disability, sexuality, and faith. Mazzoli’s masterful direction not only pays homage to the source material, but also elevates it to new heights via a hauntingly beautiful score and enchanting mise-en-scène.

Following its premiere at the Opera Philadelphia and an outstanding public reception, Breaking the Waves received the 2017 international Opera award for best new work, prompting many to observe it as an emergent masterwork.

Discover this renowned adaptation of peak 90s cinema in the lustrous Opéra Comique, for a memorable evening wherein love, devotion, and sorrow convulse together as one spectacular thrashing mass.


Synopsis of Breaking the Waves

The scene is set – in the early 1970s in the Scottish highlands, the audience is plunged into the fragility of one remote, closed community of Calvinist worshipers. Bess, a naive young girl, upsets long-held traditions by falling in love and marrying Jan, an older (and more experienced) oil-rig worker and dubbed an ‘outsider’ by Bess’ conservative community. As the elders’ unwavering conviction borders on xenophobia, the newlyweds become somewhat estranged from the insular community, on account of Jan’s lifestyle and work in offshore oil development, both of which are feared and abhorred by Bess’ peers.

When Jan must return to work on the rig, Bess becomes despondent and fearful in her loneliness, and turns to God to ask for Jan’s prompt return. However, her wishes are granted in the most grotesque of manners when Jan is rendered paralyzed by a freak rig accident. Home and bedbound, Jan and Bess begin to pick apart the particularities of their new life, resulting in a tragic tale bound up with ideas of duty, loyalty, and morality, all of which are thrust into abject subjectivity.


Cast, Conception, and Composition of Breaking the Waves

Missy Mazzoli takes on this cinematic chef-d'oeuvre for an operatic interpretation. When first approached with the prospect of turning Breaking the Waves into an opera, Mazzoli at first rejected the notion, claiming that Von Trier’s work was “untouchable”. However, this was an interesting proposition that she couldn’t quite shake, and in 2016 her adaptation came to fruition at the commission of the Opera Philadelphia. To effectively capture the detached nature of this isolated community, Mazzoli took inspiration from Scotland’s Isle of Skye, noting the importance of the mise-en-scène in her opera, despite her self-proclaimed proclivity to focus her efforts into her characters rather than the setting. The Hebredian surroundings become a character in and of itself in this opera, in which the separation of water and earth becomes a pivotal player in Jan and Bess’ relationship.

Featuring a reduced cast and a sensational choir that accounts for an array of characters, the opera Breaking the Waves seeks to use music as a form of expression and release. Mathieu Romano, musical director and key player in a versatile new generation of conductors, seeks to use an a cappella choir as much as an orchestra for the musical arrangements. The original film featured minimal music (excepting infrequent 70s ballads at each chapter card) to reflect the austere scrutiny of the church, whose elders removed the church bells from the island’s steeple so as to not distract its residents from God. Thus, the choice for an operatic rendition of Von Trier’s work – a genre that is dominated by song – is an incredibly poignant decision. “Maybe she is music,” suggests Mazzoli when considering the character of Bess, who loves song in the face of the all-consuming silence of her family and peers.

Leading the talented cast is Sydney Mancasola, American soprano and revered veteran of opera, as tortured protagonist Bess. Amongst her slew of accolades and outstanding critical reception, Mancasola was also awarded a Herald Angel Award for her performance as Breaking the Wave’s Bess in 2019. Joining her side as her lover, Jan, is American baritone Jarrett Ott, named by Opera News as one of its twenty-five “Rising Stars”.

When and Where to See Breaking the Waves in 2023

The Opéra Comique hosts this operatic sensation for just three sensational nights:

Sunday, May 28th, 2023 at 8:00 p.m.
Tuesday, May 30th, 2023 at 8:00 p.m.
Wednesday, May 31st, 2023 at 8:00 p.m.

You can expect these select tickets to be in high demand – don’t wait! See Breaking the Waves this spring for an unforgettable performance that will leave you awash with emotion.

Book your tickets for Breaking the Waves!