Notes and Editorial Reviews
Michael Schønwandt, cond; Ylva Kihlberg (
); Palle Knudsen (
); Hanne Fischer (
); Guido Paevatalu (
); Ulla Kudsk Jensen (
); Gert Henning-Jensen (
District Attorney/Guard 1
class="ARIAL12">); Carl Philip Levin (
); Royal Danish O
DACAPO 2.110410 (DVD: 73:00) Live: Copenhagen 9/13/2010
From the Cradle to the Gallows—The Making of Selma Jezková
It would be hard to imagine a grimmer opera than
, but it would be hard to imagine a grimmer film than Lars von Trier’s
Dancer in the Dark
, upon which Poul Ruders’s new opera is based. Selma has come to the United States from her native Czechoslovakia with her young son Gene. She is suffering from a disease that is inexorably robbing her of her eyesight. Gene has the disease, too, but his vision can be saved if he receives an operation, for which Selma is saving every penny. Her failing vision precipitates her being fired from the factory in which she has been working double shifts. Bill, a police officer and her sympathetic landlord, has troubles of his own. Linda, his wife, has spent Bill’s large inheritance and they are in danger of losing their house. Learning of Selma’s reserve of cash, stored in a metal tin, Bill begs her for a loan. Selma refuses, and after a brief struggle, accidentally shoots Bill with his own gun. Despairing, Bill begs her to finish him off, and she does. In a humiliating trial, she refuses to defend herself out of loyalty to Bill’s secret, and her fear that Gene will not get his operation, or that his disease will be made worse if he is made aware of it. Selma is convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, and her execution is depicted in detail. Neither von Trier nor Ruders spares the audience anything, and the result in both cases is so profoundly disturbing that it might take some time for the viewer to return to normal.
The film, despite its difficulty, has many passionate admirers, myself included. Ruders and librettist Henrik Engelbrecht thus were, in a way, inviting trouble when they decided to turn it into an opera. (The libretto is, like the film, in English.) In the enlightening documentary included on this DVD, one senses a bit of defensiveness about this:
the opera is not like the film, and
soprano Ylva Kihlberg is not Icelandic pop phenomenon Björk, whose performance in the lead role of the film is both mind-boggling and unforgettable. Danish critics disliked the opera. Perhaps my expectations were more realistic.
Dancer in the Dark
is a nearly flawless film.
is a flawed opera. It is, however, a largely effective and moving piece of work, and I don’t mind confessing that the final scene made me sob. I can forgive the opera’s faults, given its emotional impact.
For those familiar with the film, there are a few important differences to highlight. First, Ruders and Engelbrecht move with surgical swiftness; the opera is about half as long as the film. At several points in the film, the American musical-loving Selma retreats into production number-like fantasies to help her cope with harsh reality. The opera is all music, of course, so Ruders uses a simpler, even naive musical style for Selma’s flights of fancy. These turn out to be the opera’s most popularly appealing moments. Also, while the film uses a linear narrative structure, the opera begins at Selma’s funeral, and the action is a series of flashbacks conjured up by Selma in an attempt to justify herself to Gene. In fact, in the opera, Gene never leaves the stage, and director Kasper Holten suggests that perhaps Selma needs to be viewed with a more critical eye. Was she really “a saint,” or could she be criticized for orphaning Gene, who arguably needed a mother more than he needed his eyesight saved?
I’ve blown hot and cold over Ruders’s music over the years. I don’t think this is a great score, but in its metallic darkness it has many striking moments, and it serves the drama extremely well. I must single out the scene of Bill’s death, in which the action slows to a monosyllabic crawl, as being a fine moment for Ruders. Also, Selma’s
on the gallows approaches the intensity that Puccini found for Cio-Cio-San’s farewell, although of course the languages are very different.
The worst of the aforementioned faults is the trial scene, which is grotesque and sardonic; in the film, it is simply brutal, and brutally simple, an embedded production number featuring Joel Gray (!) notwithstanding. The contrasts between Selma’s fantasy life and Selma’s reality is blunted in the opera. (Von Trier’s creativity in this goes far beyond the use of Björk’s songs, and extends to camera technique and color.) The opera reminds me more of Fritz Lang, actually, than Lars von Trier—not that there’s anything wrong with Fritz Lang, but von Trier’s style and personality are unique, and there’s a distancing stratum of cynicism in
Dancer in the Dark
that actually makes the film’s blow to the solar plexus even more powerful. The image, at the start of the opera, of Gene lifting Selma up from her coffin is a bit of
that I suspect von Trier (if he has seen this opera) finds risible … but perhaps I should not speak for Lars von Trier!
Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg gives a riveting once-in-a-lifetime performance in the title role. Ruders’s music is the devil to sing—intervals, harmonies, and rhythms are often counterintuitive—but Kihlberg, from the moment she rises up from her coffin, is so assured that one forgets how hard she is working. Of course learning and singing the notes is only part of the story; this role must have been emotional hell for Kihlberg, and my heart goes out to her for her heroic success here. The other standout performance is that of young Carl Philip Levin as Gene, who is silent throughout, except during the execution scene, when he briefly calls out to his mother. His face is grave and expressive, and his apparent comfort on stage suggests a maturity well beyond his years. The smaller roles are done with solidity; tenor Palle Knudsen’s brief appearance as Bill is haunting, and Hanne Fischer, as Selma’s confidante Kathy, excels in the prison scene. Conductor Michael Schønwandt, a stalwart supporter of modern Danish music, sympathetically guides the singers in their frightening tasks, and the Royal Danish Orchestra conveys a thousand shades of gray and institutionalized despair.
As for the DVD itself, the sound and the visuals are superb. Claustrophobic camerawork, which can ruin a ballet DVD, was just what is needed here, and it is not difficult to imagine yourself on stage with the singers, following them about and looking into their eyes during their moments of high emotion. I don’t know if this opera would have as much impact on me if I were seated in the audience. (American audiences had an opportunity to find out for themselves, when it was given in Lincoln Center at the end of July. Perhaps it fared better than it apparently did in Copenhagen.)
If tears are any measure of a work’s success, then
, despite its faults, is well worth exploring. Ruders and his collaborators, like von Trier and
collaborators, have struck a nerve, and I think it is not possible to see this opera (or the film) and not be touched, or perhaps even changed, in some profound way.
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
Works on This Recording
Selma Jezkova by Poul Ruders
Carl Philip Levin (Boy Soprano),
Guido Paëvatalu (Baritone),
Ylva Kihlberg (Soprano),
Palle Knudsen (Baritone),
Hanne Fischer (Mezzo Soprano),
Gert Henning-Jensen (Tenor),
Ulla Kudsk Jensen (Mezzo Soprano)
Royal Danish Orchestra
Period: 21st Century
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