Bess McNeill, a young Scottish woman with a pure heart, lives in a religious community withdrawn into herself, dialogues with God when it suits her and marries her great love, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a Dane who soon becomes paralyzed in the aftermath of a terrible accident... We recognize there the plot of Breaking the Waves (1996), the melody which revealed Lars von Trier to the general international public and which the formidable American composer Missy Mazzoli transformed into an opera (awarded by an International Opera Award in 2017) with his librettist, Royce Vavrek.
The Opéra-Comique is offering the French premiere from May 28 to 31. The opportunity to vibrate with this heroine who takes both Joan of Arc and La Traviata, and to (re) discover this heartbreaking story which retains all its strength. At its finest, the music evokes Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, an influence Missy Mazzoli, 42, claims.
Le Point: Where did the idea of adapting Lars von Trier's film Breaking the Waves come from?
Missy Mazzoli: My path to opera composition wasn't straight forward, to say the least. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, studied piano, and thought I was writing instrumental music. That's what I studied at Boston University. I didn't see my first opera on stage until I was 19! It was Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Metropolitan. I loved it, but at no time did I think that one day I would compose a lyrical work. It took me at least ten years to allow myself to consider this…
Today, I like to be part of this long tradition of writing, I feel like an opera composer. And the success of Breaking the Waves – which was commissioned from me by the Philadelphia Opera – of course has a lot to do with it. Royce Vavrek, my librettist, who has long wanted to become a director, really perceived in Lars von Trier's film the matrix of an opera. The story of the film echoes a constant theme in the opera, that of the beautiful sacrificed heroine. If Verdi and Puccini wrote today, they would adapt films.
How do you see the character of Bess?
For me, her drama is being surrounded by people telling her what to do. Her husband, God, those around her... Everyone has an opinion! She struggles to stay true to herself. Lars von Trier wanted it to be a film about the Good. The Good that people almost want to impose on others. From the moment he is paralyzed, her husband asks her to have sex with strangers. This may shock, seem provocative, and yet the love story of this couple has something very pure about it. People are still debating Jan's intentions: is he seeking selfish gratification? Does he have any real respect for Bess' freedom? I tried to show it in the most empathetic way possible. His music is very tender, and besides, he is always tender with her...
We hear the influence of the composer Benjamin Britten in your music...
Peter Grimes was my constant reference during the composition of this opera. The atmosphere of this small community that lives near the sea, the theme of difference, of social pressure... There are many commonalities! In Peter Grimes, the orchestra makes the sound of the ocean heard, it's something incredible. And then I really like the quasi-baroque ornamentation of Britten's music in the vocal and instrumental lines. We also hear that in The Turn of the Nut.
What is the life of a contemporary composer?
Everything has changed since my beginnings twenty years ago. The big American houses, and in particular the Metropolitan Opera, place a lot of orders... I am currently writing an opera for them adapted from the novel by George Saunders Lincoln on the bardo, a challenge since there are 112 characters in the book! We feel a great appetite for music and storytelling, it's an exhilarating moment. We live in a golden age of opera today in the United States.
"Breaking the Waves" by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek – musical direction: Mathieu Romano – staging: Tom Morris – with Sydney Mancasola, Jarett Ott, Wallis Giunta and the Paris Chamber Orchestra. May 28-31. www.opera-comique.com