Amid An Opera’s Dark Waters, Musicians And A Critic Swim For Shore

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Soprano Kiera Duffy was vocally and dramatically fearless as Bess in the Detroit Opera production of Missy Mazzoli’s opera ‘Breaking the Waves.’ (Photos by Austin Richey)

DETROIT — Tom Morris’ new production of Missy Mazzoli’s 2016 Breaking the Waves, the Music Critics Association of North America’s inaugural Best New Opera winner, premiered at Detroit Opera on April 6. Based closely on the 1996 Lars von Trier film, the story meets the innocent believer Bess, raised in a strict Calvinist church on the Isle of Skye, when she marries Norwegian outsider Jan, a worker on a nearby oil rig, in 1970. The unfolding tragedy addresses what it means to be good, pitting reason against church teaching and everyone against Bess and her belief.

Soon after their wedding in the austere, bell-less church, Jan returns to work off the coast, leaving Bess struggling to cope; she begs God to send Jan home, which God does — paralyzed from an accident. Hoping to set Bess free, Jan frames his request as medicine: She must have sex with other men, then come back and tell him about it to remind him of love and thereby prevent his death. Acculturated to obey her husband and reinforced by continued conversations with a stern God, Bess reluctantly agrees. A series of coincidences prove to Bess that her actions are healing Jan, even as her reputation in the small, claustrophobic town disintegrates, leading to her excommunication. When her sister-in-law, Dodo, confides that Jan is dying, Bess ventures to a ship where the sailors are known sadists. In a horrific crucifixion tableau, we find a bleeding Bess hanging from a hook, a backlit halo around her, and she dies in a pieta in Dodo’s arms. Jan, miraculously healed, steals her body to bury at sea, and the sound of bells erupts from heaven.

Bess (Kiera Duffy) marries Jan (Benjamin Walker) in ‘Breaking the Waves.’

In Royce Vavrek’s minimalist, anti-poetic libretto, hammered repetition replaces development. But where Vavrek clings to the film script, Mazzoli’s canvas is blank, her task to define all emotional and narrative meaning for a film with only diegetic music. The sumptuous, challenging score, conducted with precision by Stephanie Childress and rendered impeccably by the Detroit Opera orchestra, is best in its unique sonorities, as when Mazzoli conjures God’s forbidding voice with the strident urgency of an electric guitar under a murmuring men’s chorus, Bess’ spoken text in her final orchestral wash of waves over God’s bells, and Bess’ recorded voice as her body floats in the deepening ocean. Mazzoli’s idiomatic vocal writing is nearly always wise and expressive.

Consummate musician Kiera Duffy was vocally and dramatically fearless as Bess, her shimmering, crystalline soprano available for every vocal demand. This celebrated role, for which Emily Watson won an Oscar, requires everything of its portrayer, and Duffy, who originated the opera role, gave nothing less. She inhabited every inch and measure of Bess, from the pronounced Scottish accent to the stern lectures she intoned from God, from Bess’ vulnerable physicality to her dreamy, mystical joy.

Baritone Benjamin Taylor voiced a powerful Jan, albeit delivered for much of the opera lying nearly flat on a bed, but it wasn’t until his soaring closing aria that the brilliantly lyrical potential of his instrument was finally unfurled. The opera lacks a scene or duet persuasively establishing their love: A sex scene in her bed attempts it but falls short of the sublime romantic love that would encourage the audience’s investment in them. Their separation for much of the opera similarly prevents exploration of the chemistry that propels Bess’ devotion even into the opera’s dark waters. Despite their undeniable commitment, Duffy and Taylor could not overcome this gaping hole in the work’s structure.

A sadistic sailor (Kevin Starnes) taunts Bess.

Mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Barkidjija created a stalwart, open-hearted Dodo, Bess’ only friend, with her coppery warm tone and realistic characterization. Barkidjija’s luscious vocal color anchored her lines as islands of humanity in the second half’s tornado of musical terror. Elizabeth van Os did her best with the narrowly drawn character of Mrs. McNeill, carrying her immense dramatic soprano through unflattering staccato passages well below the bloom of her voice. Bass-baritone Nathan Stark was the ideal physical embodiment of inflexible Calvinism as the Church Councilman. His steely tone brooked no disagreement as Stark loomed over the tiny-framed Duffy. David Portillo gave a sympathetic performance as Dr. Richardson, squeezing every bit of lyricism from the largely reactive tenor role. Baritone Robert Mellon was a bright spot as Jan’s friend Terry, offering up an essentially American ease with a welcome, almost bombastic vocal gleam.

Nevertheless, every possible interpretation of this story is grim: Either Bess is delusional and her impotent loved ones are complicit in her eventual suicide-by-rape (and we ignore the final bells, which is interpretive cheating) or God is a monster and we are watching a sexual snuff opera. Meanwhile, Detroit Opera’s tepid content warning for language, nudity, and sexual violence — absent from advance communication with the orchestra, from which four traumatized players withdrew upon learning of the opera’s triggering scenes — accomplishes almost nothing, so let me warn you: This opera enacts sexual horror. Watching it made me feel both complicit and harmed.

Bess (Kiera Duffy) is abused by the sailors.

As an operatic spectacle, Morris’ new production is impressive. With a score among the best contemporary opera has heard, the production shows real artistic invention, performed with breathtaking dedication by a slate of brave, accomplished musician-actors. I respect what this creative team has accomplished.

Soutra Gilmour’s ingenious set, with projections by Will Duke, consisted of an imposing triangular prism described by pillars of increasing height that spun to reveal its three planes: the steep interior of the church and two others that, via moving projections, transformed into the cliffs, rig, hospital, and sadists’ ship. Lurking in this crack team’s production design were intriguing indications that they interpreted God as a demonic monster. The men’s chorus, as God’s voice, appeared in the very same costumes, with slashed naked chests, that the sadistic sailors wore near the end, symbolically linking God’s voice with sadism. Similarly, visually aligning Bess’ final torture with Jesus’ crucifixion condemned a needlessly cruel God for requiring such sacrifice of both Bess and Jesus.

And I never want to see this opera again.

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Jennifer Goltz-Taylor
Jennifer Goltz-Taylor is a soprano, music theorist, music educator, and multi-genre multi-instrumentalist. She has performed new chamber music and opera in Europe and across the US as a founding member of the new music ensemble Brave New Works and with Milwaukee-based Present Music, the Muse Ensemble, and Klangforum Wien, among many others, and can be heard on Naxos, Albany, Centaur, MSR Classics, AMP, and Blue Griffin Records. Her recording of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire and Brettl-lieder (MSR) with the Los Angeles-based ensemble Inauthentica was hailed by Gramophone as "captivating" and "brilliant… a voice full of subtle allure and sprightly energy." She fronted the popular Klezmer band Into the Freylakh in the early 2000s and now appears with an accordion and a mic with the band Klezmephonic. In addition to degrees in Vocal Performance, Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Music Theory from the University of Michigan; she has published on narrative in film scores and the history of Sprechstimme, and served as a reviewer for Opera News until 2023. She headed the voice area and taught music theory at Scripps College in southern California and now teaches voice, music theory, and courses about music within the humanities at the University of Michigan Residential College.