Poul Ruders: Selma Jekozà
03 January 2012
Behind Poul Ruders's fourth and most recent opera lies a film that was both its inspiraton and very nearly its undoing. The film is Lars von Trier's celebrated Dancer in the Dark; it tells the tragic story of a working-class woman (played by the Icelandic Singer Björk), a single parent struggling to save money for the operation that will cure her 12-year-old son of the hereditary blindness to which he is already succumbing. Jobless, and arrested for the murder of a neighbour who attempted to steal her savings, Selma refuses to spend this money on the lawyer and the legal case that would save her life (but would. leave her son to go blind). So the boy is cured and his mother is hanged.
Ruders based his opera not on the movie but rather on this founding story, and he chose to emphasize the tough moral issue at its centre; he also named it differently from the movie. Yet the Royal Danish Opera, keen for publicity that would take advantage of the film's success ahead of the premiere, resisted the name change and colluded with the idea that the work was an operatic version of a famous and critically acclaimed movie. These false expectations set up the production's initial runs (in Copenhagen and Umea in autumn 2010 and in New York in July 2011) for a critical reception that was, as often as not, deep ly confused, even hostile. Today the opera goes under the name Ruders wanted; but, given the work's history, it's astonishing that Dacapo Records still decided to emblazon the cover of the DVD with a phrase explicitly linking Selma Jezkova to Dancer in the Dark.
The work strikes me as a masterpiece. From the first notes of its modernist score, the music is marvellously expressive and communicative; and though its unfolding from scene to scene is wonderfully varied, the music's way of tapping directly into the source of each dramatic moment makes this variety seem wholly necessary. The music slides seamlessly through a range of contrasting styles and registers; always highly effective and dramatically telling, these shifts sometimes take one's breath away-such as when, via skilful llusions to the Broadway musical, the music evokes for Selma a magical realm that seemingly transcends the scorching pain of the-present. (Indeed, the opera's use of musical irony is central to much of its power.)
Among contemporary opera composers, Ruders seems to me a master of the ability to etch each dramatic moment in music of such uncanny aptness and precision as to render it entirely singular, even unique. So, for example, Selma fatally wounds Bill, and, later, Selma responds to her death sentence; in the first instance, the halting, measured musical punctuations that follow the shooting belong exclusively to this one unrepeatable moment and context; in the second, Selma sings a gentle strophic song, but the way she heartbreakingly inflects it towards a lullaby is uniquely hers. In part because Henrik Engelbrecht's libretto focuses only on key moments, the music is also remarkably economical, its manner stunningly direct. This is why the passage of the opera-one act, five scenes, and a total running time of 73 minutes-seems satisfying and wholly convincing.
Powerfully acted and excellently filmed during a live performance, the DVD of this searing opera ends as it began, with the boy and the body of his dead mother. In keeping with a drama that unfolds between these bookends as a series of events recalled, Christian Lemmerz's set makes little attempt at naturalism: metal scaffolding, benches and tables occupy dimly-lit, basilica-like interiors, at once cavernous, lonely and claustrophobic. Ylva Kihlberg brings to the gruelling role of Selma exactly the right kind of intensity; but her vocal timbre, though mellow in softer passages, is borne by a strong, rapid vibrato that tends to shrillness and overinsistence in louder sections. Gert Henning-Jensen's clear, penetrating tenor is put to marvellous use as the menacing, persecutory District Attorney. Hanne Fischer excels as Kathy, Selma's warmvoiced, caring, solicitous friend. Singing with ease and considerable tenderness Palle Knudsen makes the role of Bill more complex and sympathetic than one might have expected.
The DVD includes a fascinating and surprisingly intimate 47-minute documentary on the making of the opera, some of it employing autocam and other techniques used in reality television; it features Ruders and all the main players in interviews, commentaries and rehearsal. As Kihlberg says, this opera strips away one's defences-which of course is why the experience of it is so shattering. Only Ruders's marvellous music offers any solace; otherwise there is neither comfort nor redemption, and the opera chooses instead to stand as a threnody to the suffering of the innocent. Here, then, is a DVD that is an outstanding record of a quite extraordinary work. I can't recommend it too highly.