Saturday, July 30, 2011

Selma Jezková: Royal Danish Opera in NYC

Photograph (c) Miklos Szabo
Poul Ruders' 2010 opera, Selma Jezková, had its U.S. premiere on Friday; its single New York performance occurred as part of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival. Commissioned in the last season of Kaspar Holten's tenure as the director of the Royal Danish Opera, we saw it in Holten's production and with the same singers in the principal roles. And it was searing. There is much in the title role reminiscent of the opera repertory's most familiar tragic heroines: Selma is a passionate woman both willing to undertake a gesture of self-sacrifice, and seen as cruelly sacrificed to an unforgiving society. But Ruders knows this is a complicated business. Selma is not without agency, and whether her martyrdom is moral or misguided is open to discussion. One thing is certain: there is no redemption in her death, or after it.

The opera takes its inspiration from Lars von Trier's 2000 film "Dancer in the Dark," but its musical world is its own, and the drama it presents, though revolving around the same events, also has a substantially different emphasis. (An interview with Ruders explains further about the work's genesis and its relationship to Von Trier's work.) This was my first exposure to Ruders' operatic works--Really Shameful Confession--and I was struck, and moved, by the yearning, tragic dissonances of the score; by the strong vocal characterization; and by the feeling of dramatic inevitability communicated through the music. Trimmed and telescoped from the events of the film, Ruders' work depicts an atmosphere and society much more hostile than von Trier's, brilliantly evoked and criticized in Holten's production. I left feeling convinced that society is broken... but that with works this smart, opera, at least, should have an exciting future.

The Royal Danish Orchestra played with clean, expressive sound under the baton of Michael Schønwandt. I was impressed by their cohesive, responsive ensemble work (delightfully visible from my front row seat,) but the deployment of, for example, the trombones or the piano for dramatic effect was also carried off well. Kaspar Holten's production was both intelligent and dynamic. The opera opens in a church where Selma's funeral is taking place; this is the outermost layer of the set designed by Christian Lemmerz, where benches and multilevel wheeled platforms suggest other locations: Selma's home, the courtroom, the prison. But the burnt-out, crumbling building has much to say: there are no images of saints, only stands of wax candles; there is no altar. Selma's cell is the penitent's half of a confessional. Her last meal consists of bread and wine, but here these elements hold no promise. The eye which sometimes appears in the window is frightened and human, not divine; and the central illusion--Selma stepping out of the casket to relive her history under her son's gaze--is no resurrection.

I was struck both by the strength and the individuality of the singers, who gave beautifully nuanced performances. I must also mention Carl Philip Levin, who took the speaking, nearly silent but ever-present role of Gene, Selma's son. It is all too clear that Selma's insistence that she acts on his behalf horrifies him, as do the consequences of her actions. The affection between mother and son, however, is equally palpable. It was heart-wrenching, but I didn't feel that the pathos tipped into the maudlin. Gert Henning-Jensen, as the District Attorney, appeared as a singing, dancing incarnation of evil (I was reminded of Joel Grey in Cabaret.) His flamboyant performance was at the center of the trial scene, where the jury appeared as a (silent) chorus with roots in Grimes and Kafka: hostile, self-righteous, self-deluding and merciless. Guido Paevatalu, as Selma's not-unsympathetic factory boss, created a fine characterization in the brief time he had to display his warm baritone; I'd love to hear him in some of the dramatically juicy roles of the standard rep. Kathy, although she cares for Selma, is more helpless here than in Von Trier's film. Hanne Fischer contributed round-toned melancholy, increasingly tinged with desperation. Palle Knudsen sang Bill's haunting lines with clear, plangent sound. Here he is a figure marked by fate, with an unmistakable death wish, perhaps no less manipulative than in the film, but certainly less malicious.

Ylva Kihlberg, in the title role, gave a radiant and deeply moving performance. The program notes--and, I think, the opera--leave the question of the morality of Selma's actions open. But Ruders' music, Holten's production, and Kihlberg's excellent performance make her a sympathetic and touchingly nuanced character. Rudens gives Selma gorgeous music (though it doesn't sound easy.) Selma is on stage from the opera's beginning to its end, both living and observing her own fateful narrative. Throughout, Kihlberg communicated emotion through the voice with a directness and sweetness that broke my heart. There were, I thought, phrases reminiscent of Janáček where Selma is recalling her native Prague. The sugary romanticism and brisk rhythms of her "musical" fantasies were rendered poignant by the way they rang hollow against the more complex harmonies of Ruders' score. Her singing is silenced before the opera's close in brutal thumps of percussion and pizzicato strings. I pulled myself together to applaud, but I have a feeling that the work's impact will linger.


  1. Well, this does sound like an adventure! Interesting to base an opera on a film, and yet very 21st century. The opera itself aside, I wonder if this will open up a new wave of modern opera being based on movies, the way before they came from theatre-'Das leben der anderen', for example, would make a heartbreaking opera. Deep thoughts...

  2. @Christie An adventure in being emotionally devastated, certainly! Interestingly, Anne Midgette is quoted in this article ( as making a similar observation to yours: that choosing films--perceived as a well-known and non-threatening genre--as the basis for operas may become increasingly popular among contemporary composers.

    I think "Das Leben der Anderen" is an absolutely brilliant film. The number of strong voices it would require as an opera might be daunting, but there would be amazing potential for ensemble writing. Imagine a trio for Dreymann, Wiesler, and Christa-Maria!

  3. The thought of a trio between the three of them makes me shiver. The movie reduced to me a sobbing wreck-they were so close to having everything work out!-so the very thought of what power an opera version could possess is almost scary.

  4. @Christie Glad I'm not the only one it reduced to a sobbing wreck. It's so gorgeous, though; I own it and feel as though I get more nuances every time. In the case of Ruders' opera and the Von Trier film, I found both emotionally devastating, but the opera more... satisfactorily so, if that makes sense? It was such a stunning work of art that it gave me lots to ponder besides the bleakness.

  5. There was discussion a couple of years ago of von Donnersmarck producing the Ring at Bayreuth bur it appears it did not for one reason or another work out. That too would have been interesting.

    And yes, DLdA is an extraordinary film. One is hesitant to go over board but one might venture to suggest that its a bit of a poor man's (or woman's) Don Carlos for the Cold War.

  6. @marcillac I heard von Donnersmarck's name bandied after Wenders dropped out, and was also intrigued by the possibility. I hadn't thought about similarities between DLdA and Don Carlos, but now that you mention it... interesting!


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