'Breaking the Waves': A great operatic package if you can take it

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Opera Philadelphia Launches 2016-2017 Season with World Premiere of "Breaking the Waves." The adaptation of the Lars von Trier film debuts in five performances, Sept. 22–Oct 1 Credit: Dominic M. Mercier

Unquestionably, Opera Philadelphia has developed, produced, and premiered a powerful, fully realized, artistically significant piece with Breaking the Waves. The creative team of long-promising artists - composer Missy Mazzoli, librettist Royce Vavick, director James Darrah, and soprano Kiera Duffy - all seem to surpass themselves simultaneously and with a common dramatic purpose.

The question at Thursday's Perelman Theater premiere was whether any adaptation of the acclaimed 1996 Lars von Trier film is something mainstream opera audiences can handle.

Already considered an oddball in her Calvinist Isle of Skye community, innocent Bess becomes convinced that having promiscuous sex helps her oil-rig worker husband, Jan, recover from a near-fatal injury. Improbable as that seems, the characters build up so much credibility you simply have to believe them. That's also why the some sexual situations are excruciating: They portray psychological and physical distress that can't be experienced from a safe distance.

But if you believe the only depressing art is bad art, Breaking the Waves is exhilarating.

Most vocal lines strike the right balance of dramatic intention and language intelligibility. Secondary elements such as transitional music and choral interludes create a sociological soil out of which everything else grows.

Though much of Mazzoli's previous music came from the ambient and minimalist worlds, this score is a dramatically bubbling tapestry with a ceaselessly inventive, dramatically concise orchestration. The industrial-sounding percussion is novel. But there are also minor miracles of simplicity when a cello pizzicato charts the state of a character's soul. A few spots aren't quite there yet, like the oil-rig disaster, and Jan's final goodbye to Bess. A problem with music, libretto, or scenery? Hard to tell. The package is that seamlessly integrated.

The chameleonlike Adam Rigg set is dominated by large planes of space on which all manner of imagery is projected, sometimes going into pure expressionism with abstract shapes that may be bloodstains or teardrops. Darrah's stage direction is incredibly precise when charting the opera's progression from representational reality into something more nightmarish - accompanied by woozy glissandi in the music.

Performances under conductor Steven Osgood were assured on every level. No struggling is heard in the orchestra. Singers all knew exactly what to do with their voices at every turn. Baritone John Moore as Jan sounded virile when healthy but made his voice sound muted and cloudy when bedridden. Some of the most conventionally beautiful singing came from tenor David Portillo as the doctor. Eve Gigliotti as Bess' friend and Patricia Schuman as her severe mother effectively defined that world's moral polarities.

But the evening belonged to soprano Duffy, whose specialty as a Handel singer gave her musical characterization of Bess the kind of apt details one isn't likely to hear outside an intimate art-song recital. Her acting had physical assurance, but, less tangibly, you cared about her from the moment she entered the stage. Maybe that's why I could barely stand it when her character feels abandoned by God. You didn't want her to be abandoned by anybody.

Additional performances: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 8 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $29-$159. Information: 215-732-8400 or operaphila.org

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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