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Format:  DVD

Katalognummer:  2.110410

Stregkode:  747313541058

Udgivelsesmåned:  May 2011

Periode:  21. århundrede


Poul Ruders: Selma Jezková

30 June 2011  International Record Review
Richard Whitehouse

Opera has been at the forefront of Poul Ruders¹s output for over a decade: the provocative The Handmaid¹s Tale (reviewed
in February 2001) was followed by the hardly less ambitious Kafka¹s Trial (reviewed in June 2006). After these, Selma Jezková might seem a reduction in all senses, Ruders and librettist Henrik Engelbrecht having compressed Lars von Trier¹s screenplay for the film Dancer in the Dark down to essentials, resulting in a traversal through the narrative of around 66 minutes. Yet, and while recognizing the inimitability of Trier¹s melodrama-cum-musical, such compression arguably works to the advantage of the main protagonist ­ setting out her plight in the most direct terms so that her predicament is the more immediate and hence empathetic. Formally the opera ­ which tells of a Czech immigrant in 1950s small-town America and her determination to pay for her son¹s eye operation so he may escape the blindness inflicted on several generations of her family ­ consists of five scenes prefaced and linked by orchestral interludes that variously recall and anticipate salient motifs in a manner often redolent of Berg. Thus the depiction of Selma¹s drudgery, escapism and dismissal in the factory is followed by the confrontation with and death of her landlord in the trailer; her conviction via the parody of a trial in the courtroom precedes her fatalistic reckoning and resignation in the death cell, prior to her final appeal to her son and execution in the gallows chamber. This scenario is given context by her son Gene, who, onstage for the duration of the opera, removes
then returns her body to its coffin as the framework for her story to be related in flashback ­ a dramatic device as concrete in its aim as it is immediate in impact.


Musically, the work is descended from Berg, in that its free tonality provides an expressive focus yet without the schematic framework becoming inflexible. Despite there being only three-dozen players, the orchestration has a fullness and eloquence in advance on Ruders¹s earlier stage works, opening out the drama so that far more is conveyed through inference than statement and in itself a justification for Ruders¹s conception. Less successful are the Œsongs¹ through which Selma expresses her inner emotions, their simplicity made less than artless by squareness of phrasing that sits awkwardly within the overall rhythmic fluency and whose populist overtones risk contrivance (Björk¹s musical contribution to the film, released as Selma Songs, makes for an instructive comparison). Again, though, this is a relative failing next to the veracity of the opera as a whole.
The cast is dominated, as it needs to be, by Ylva Kihlberg¹s Selma: her dramatic soprano exudes fervency and commitment and, while her tone may coarsen momentarily at climaxes, this is hardly to the detriment of an eloquent assumption. As Kathy, Hanne Fischer¹s mezzo might have been more effectively contrasted in their dialogue, but she remains a steadfast and sympathetic presence. Palle Knudsen convinces as the despairing Bill, his own American Dream in financial tatters and his death ­ its syllabic detachment a sure highlight of the work ­ a welcome release. Guido Paevatalu and Gert Henning-Jensen both have the vocal fluency needed to delineate their cameo roles, while Ulla Kudsk Jensen brings understated warmth to the part of Brenda. As Gene, Carl Philip Levin is an all but silent witness to events, yet his intuitive and wholly unaffected response to the misfortune all around him points to an acting ability which promises great things in the years to come.


Michael Schønwandt conducts with his customary flair, securing a committed response from the Royal Danish Opera Orchestra, while Kasper Holten directs with the theatrical inventiveness and acuity that made his Ring cycle (reviewed in July/August 2009) such an absorbing reinterpretation. Indeed, the whole production is a triumph of dramatic focus and concentration, drawing the audience in to its sombre world through the subtle use of a range of dramatic devices, and filmed for DVD with a balance between detail and perspective that yields a range of nuance likely unavailable within the theatre. Special praise for the accompanying documentary that charts the evolution of the opera from its initial planning to actual staging ­ at times literally counting down the hours from one to the other and which, by including footage of production meetings as well as web-cam asides by the main participants, offer many insights into the psychology integral to the performance process.


Apparently critical response was largely unsympathetic but, as those taking part imply, this may have more to do with Ruders daring to rework a Danish cultural icon than its success or failure as such. The opera has since been seen in America; if a UK staging of Selma Jezková is not already scheduled, it certainly ought to be.

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