Money - or, more appropriately, the lack of it - can make people desperate. That was the theme of Poul Ruders' one-act opera Selma Jezková, which received it's U.S. premiere last night at the Rose Theater by the Royal Danish Opera, part of the ongoing Lincoln Center Festival. Based on Lars von Trier's haunting 2000 film Dancer in the Dark (starring Bjork), the central action of the story is when Bill (performed by Palle Knudsen) attempts to rob Selma's life savings at gunpoint after having gone broke from his wife's expensive habits. Selma (sung by Ylva Kihlberg) manages to take the gun from Bill and shoots him accidentally in the leg; Bill pleads with Selma to put an end to his misery, and she complies.
For me - and I'm sure I'm not the only one - this scene had immediate resonance, given the havoc wreaked on the stock market of late by a coterie of extremist politicians in Washington. To wit: just before the opera began, I found out that I'd just lost all of the gains I'd made in the market over the past five years, and then some. It wasn't my entire life savings, but it was a pretty big chunk of money that I'll probably never see again. Thank goodness there weren't any real guns lying around...
Ruders' music takes some getting used to: he mixes dark dissonances with saccharine, Oklahoma-style melodies. (Alex Ross calls him "one of contempoary music's free agents.") I can't say I came away truly satisfied, especially with the memory of Bjork's own stunning compositions (orchestrated by Vincent Mendoza) still fresh in my head.
There were also some serious quirks in Kasper Holten's production, with amplified echoes and one of those stupid projected eyes frequently hanging over the proceedings. There was also a lot of overacting and affectation, and the story was far too compressed to make sense in a space of 70 minutes.
But, I will give props to Kihlberg, who gave a truly affecting (not affected) performance, even if her voice was often hard to hear. Towards the end of the opera, Holten sent her out on a 2x6 plank suspended 30 feet above the stage, a noose hanging around her neck. And, she sang. Now, that's what I call brave.
More pics on the photo page.