Starting with a compelling and thought-provoking story, telling it with clarity and enacting it with dramatic sincerity can only be achieved through seamless collaboration. That’s exactly how composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves comes across in West Edge Opera’s disturbing and touching production. Further, success in the theatre often owes as much to long list of carefully resolved and well-aligned factors as it does to an ineffable and immeasurable quality that both resonates and challenges after. Breaking the Waves does that too.
|Sara LeMesh as Bess McNeill|
The protagonist of the story is Bess McNeill, a young woman traumatised by the death of her brother years earlier but who has found love and sexual awakening when she meets and marries a North Sea oil rig worker, Jan Nyman. Bess is also inextricably joined to her austere and conservative Calvinist community in a remote coastal Scottish town. When Jan is paralysed in an industrial accident, Bess blames herself. Then, on Jan’s request but initially resistant, she agrees to have sex with other men so that the experience can be related back to him in order for their love to have ongoing sexual meaning.
It sounds perverse and, on the surface, there’s a smear of male chauvinism and sado-masochist psychology at play but their deep mutual love glows beautifully in Mazzoli’s richly faceted music and Vavrek’s vividly painted libretto. Vavrek also cleverly builds a tight narrative that is especially effective, as is Mazzoli’s superb use of chorus, in how Bess’ communion with God channels her religiously tuned psychological state, believing that every time she gives herself to other men she is giving herself to Jan and, in doing so, will help cure him. When Bess is later ostracised by her community and then beaten in a brutal episode that causes her death, Jan is cured in a miraculous ending (Wagner’s Tannhäuser came to mind) in which Bess becomes both victim and saint-like.
|Sara LeMesh as Bess and Robert Wesley Mason as Jan|
As Bess, Sara LeMesh gives it her all in a role that demands extensive stage time, convincing physical application and vocal dexterity. The results LeMesh achieves are beyond measure as she takes Bess emotionally close to her audience with her cowering juvenile behaviour, her seeming delusional state, affections for Jan and her leggy prostituting poses, baring everything from vulnerability to strength with absolute conviction of heart and mind. With LeMesh comes a strikingly expressive soprano of feathery beauty and penetrating effect that matches her character convincingly.
Lovingness oozes and tested emotions are firmly rendered in Robert Wesley Mason’s handsomely rugged Jan as life turns upside down, his warm, muscular and resonant baritone a perfect casing and compliment for LeMesh’s Bess. Sumptuous mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich sings a devilishly good Dodo McNeill, Bess’ loyal and loving sister-in-law and robust tenor Alex Boyer impresses in balancing authority and compassion as Dr Richardson as does soprano Kristin Clayton as Bess’ uncompromising mother and Brandon Bell as Jan’s friend and co-worker Terry. Timings slipped here and there in an otherwise beautifully atmospheric chorus of ten males.
|Kristin Clayton as Mrs Mc Neill, Sara LeMesh as Bess and|
Robert Wesley Mason as Jan
Acoustic integrity, however, is undermined by The Bridge Yard’s metal cladding. At this penultimate performance, Music Director Jonathan Khuner elicited lovely tonal and textural form from the 22-strong musicians but there were times when intensity failed to lift according to drama, particularly as Bess and Jan bed for making love and when Bess says good-bye as Jan leaves for the oil rig. Mazzoli’s music is characterful and evocative, like a living organism that breathes and expires in all kinds of exciting ways. The night would have benefited even more if that musical organism had unleashed the gutsiness of the soul within.
Breaking The Waves
West Edge Opera
The Bridge Yard, Oakland CA
Until 18th August 2019
Production Photos: Cory Weaver