A Well-Executed 'Selma' at the Lincoln Center Festival

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Those who have seen Lars von Trier’s bleak Dancer in the Dark know that an opera based on the 2000 cult film is not going to be a feel-good night of family fun.

However, no amount of gut-wrenching, emotional self-flagellation can prepare even the steeliest soul for Poul Ruders’s Selma Jezokvá. With expressive lyricism and violent gashes of atonality to undercut a bloodless story, Ruders draws us in with a sinister warmth that ultimately leaves the listener emotionally spent after just 80 minutes. Perhaps only the theater seats were what prevented many audience members from watching the opera’s final minutes curled up in fetal position on the floor.

Selma Jezková is a Czech immigrant scraping by in America in hopes of affording a surgery to save her son from the hereditary blindness that has taken her own sight. Her degenerative disease and grim prospects give her a propensity for living in an MGM-style musical fantasy—the first words she sings are an excerpt from The Sound of Music—that ultimately leads to her termination from work in a factory after destroying a machine. The same night, Jezková’s landlord, Bill—an equally down-on-his-luck gent who has exhausted an inheritance and is facing what he believes to be an inevitable divorce—attempts to steal the money she has saved up ($2056.10) for the operation, threatening his tenant with a gun.

It goes off, wounding Bill in the leg and leaving him to beg Selma to finish the job. After much protest, Selma does so and is tried and executed for the murder, refusing to use her money for a good lawyer so that instead her son can have the operation. Selma goes to the gallows full of fear but, like Puccini’s Suor Angelica, is mollified when she is told that the operation is a success and her son will see his grandchildren. Whether there’s truth in this statement or it was told to strengthen Selma’s heart in the face of death is just one of the many depressing considerations of von Trier’s film and Ruders’s opera.

Above: Carl Philip Levin, Ylva Kihlberg and Gert Henning-Jensen with the company of Selma Jezková.

Fortunately, the powerfully vulnerable music softens the blow of Selma’s eventual hanging (executed in last night’s first U.S. performance with some white-knuckle technical difficulty and a few orders barked offstage from a Danish stage manager, adding to the not inconsiderable tension already onstage). Ruders, who previously wowed audiences with his Atwood–based opera The Handmaid’s Tale, has expanded his blend of tonal and atonal writing to create a score that is utterly human: deliberately flawed in some areas yet full of soul and heart.

The opera on the whole plays out in a Bach-ian style as we witness the Passion of Selma (it opens with her funeral and her son, embittered by his mother’s death, bringing her back to life). Ruders continues his Bach bender with understated counterpoint, most notably in Bill’s death, that captures both his torment and that of Selma’s, a woman so loving and naïve that murder seems out of the question, as she pulls the trigger one final time.

Other nods to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, Jezková’s compatriot Janacek, Menotti’s The Consul, “Where Shall I Fly?” from Handel’s Hercules and the “Ol’ Man River” brand of American songbook are woven throughout the score, painting a portrait of Eastern Europe meets Anywhere, U.S.A. and embracing the musical-loving Selma’s inner world. Yet no erudite reference ever rings false or outside of Ruders’s own musical lingua franca: the cuts and fabric are familiar, but the wardrobe is entirely his.

It also belongs in no small part to the cast, many of whom were part of the opera’s world premiere in Copenhagen last September (the production came to the United States via the Royal Danish Opera as part of this year’s galvanizing Lincoln Center Festival). Tenor Gert Henning-Jensen gave a tour-de-force performance as the prosecuting District Attorney at Selma’s trial, bounding around onstage while singing an amalgamation of styles and ranges that would make the razzle-dazzle showmanship of Chicago’s Billy Flynn seem slothful.

As Selma, Ylva Kihlberg was incandescent and utterly moving, though in terms of audibility and diction showed the occasional struggle in the more lyrical passages. Selma’s son, played by the precocious Carl Philip Levin, had an even harder job of remaining a silent yet active presence onstage for the entire performance. At times you don’t realize how effectively he pulls off this herculean task until he screams at the end. The effect produced a collective choking back of tears from last night’s audience.

Check out this clip of Bill's death scene in Selma Jezková and let us know what you think below.