Danish composer Poul Ruders, having been deeply moved by Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, used his third commission from the Royal Danish Theatre to create a 75-minute opera based on this tragic story of a mother’s sacrifice to save her son from hereditary blindness.  The result is a small masterpiece, renamed Selma Jezkova after its heroine.  

Ruders and librettist Henrik Engelbrecht have pared down the story to five harrowing, concise scenes that refocus the wide palette of the film squarely in the relationship between Selma and her 12-year old son Gene.  The opera is wrenching, highly emotional, and director Kaspar Holten keeps the story snowballing toward its shattering climax.   The DaCapo DVD release of the opening performance is entirely impressive, both musically and dramatically. 

Selma Jezkova is a fascinating, multi-faceted character—a woman who moves from Prague to a small American factory town with her young son in order to save every penny for an operation that can keep the boy from going blind, a fate Selma has accepted for herself.  She also has an active fantasy life, wishing herself a musical actress (she sings a bit of Maria from The Sound of Music in the first scene in the factory) in order to cope with the drudgery of her factory job.

The downward spiral of her life begins when, exhausted from working double shifts, she accidentally breaks a machine and is fired.  She befriends her landlord, a police officer nearing the end of his rope due to debts and a demanding wife, and makes the mistake of confiding to him that she has saved over $2,000 for Gene’s operation.  The desperate Bill begs her to loan him the money, then pulls his gun when she refuses.  In the struggle, the gun goes off and Bill is shot, begging Selma to kill him and end his suffering.  Though she can barely see him, she shoots again in her frenzy and Bill is dead.

There follow three stark scenes in which the desperate Selma is tried, convicted of murder, and finally sent to the gallows.  There is something of a female Wozzeck in this character, an innocent hopelessly buffeted by the cruel and manipulative wordly forces that surround her.  Even when her friend Kathy begs her to get a lawyer, she refuses to touch a penny of the money that will save her son’s sight.  Her single-minded focus on Gene reveals a moving mother’s sacrifice.

Ruders’ music (sung in English) is an interesting combination of cacophony and pure melody.  The sounds of the factory, the “fantasy musical” sequence, and the courtroom scene are noisy, disconcerting, and sometimes frightening.  Yet the scenes between Selma and Gene (a silent role in the opera except a stunning shout of “No! Mother” at the gallows) contain ravishing, sensitive melody.  The one real “aria” in the piece, “My life”, finds Selma trying to make Gene understand her life and her hopes for a future in Heaven.  The simple, sentimental aria is exquisitely beautiful.

The cast is uniformly excellent, led by a tremendous performance by dramatic soprano Ylva Kihlberg in the title role.  Ms. Kihlberg finds every aspect of this complex character, with a wonderful variety of vocal choices, always reflective of the state of the character.  The voice blooms with power when needed, yet is capable of lovely quiet moments and a wide range of tonal colors and textures.  Ms. Kihlberg is also a very fine actress, and infuses deeply felt emotion in every scene of the opera.  Young Carl Philip Levin as Gene is also a fine actor, and he and Ms. Kihlberg have managed a very clear rapport making the mother-son relationship vividly touching and real.

The supporting roles are also cast to vocal and dramatic strength.  Palle Knudsen as Bill, Hanne Fischer as Selma’s friend Kathy, Ulla Kudsk Jensen as prison guard Brenda, and particularly the knife-sharp tenor of Gert Henning-Jensen as the District Attorney provide solid characterizations and strong voices.  Conductor Michael Schonwandt leads the Royal Danish Orchestra in a subtle, passionate reading of this music.

The production is bleak, dark, and claustrophobic, with an evocative set by Christian Lemmerz and stark lighting by Jesper Kongshaug.  It works well as a clear contrast to the desperate attempts by Selma to find a loving, peaceful home with her son.  The story is told a bit like Gene’s flashback, beginning and ending at Selma’s funeral where Gene finally says goodbye.

Above all, a huge blue blinking eye observes the action; at the end, the eye is the last thing we see in the blackout.  A group of anonymous men and women shift the stage from scene to scene, and play factory workers and later the crowd and jury at Selma’s trial.  This device keeps the action moving forward and is quite effective.

I should also mention that the DVD comes with an unusually detailed and interesting booklet with several essays on Ruders’ music and this opera in particular.  On the DVD, there is a “Making Of Selma Jezkova” film that really delves deeply into the long process of bringing this opera to the stage, mainly from the point of view of Ruders, stage director Holten, and soprano Kihlberg, for whom the role was written.  It’s fascinating.

This short opera is an important achievement, and should be seen whether one knows Dancer in the Dark or not  (I viewed the film after watching the opera and found the music drama more concise and convincing).  It is a moving, touching experience throughout, perhaps reaching its peak with these lyrics from Selma’s “My Life” aria to Gene:

My life is nearly over now,
And very soon I’ll see
The things that now are hidden,
The place I long to be.

Where all is made of music,
Where all is sounds of joy,
Where dancers spin and turn and twirl,
I’ll wait there for my boy.

In the same package with the Selma DVD was another one-act opera, this one on  CD, Louis Karchin’s 1990 comic work Romulus, using as its libretto a short play by Alexander Dumas pere, translated to English by Barnett Shaw.  The work is a charming diversion, a slight comedy about an intellectual household of an astronomer and a philosopher turned upside down by the appearance of an abandoned baby.  Dumas’ play is a good place to ground an opera, allowing Karchin to utilize some interesting musical devices in its 19th century Tyrolean setting.

Philosophy professor Frantz Wolf is a long-term guest in the house of the astronomer Celestus and his charming unmarried sister Martha.  When a mysterious young man (a silent role) sneaks in an leaves a baby of the table with a note asking Celestus to take care of him, much comic chaos ensues involving the mystery of the baby’s parentage and the involvement of the town’s blustery Mayor (who conveniently lives next door.  By the end, baby Romulus’ parents are discovered, Martha and Frantz have discovered they love each other, and everyone is poised to live happily ever after.

I found Karchin’s music undistinguished but certainly inoffensive; too much of the opera is merely dialogue set to music that doesn’t really illuminate the story in any unique way.  Where he succeeds best is in non-vocal music—the sequences where the young man enters and leaves the baby, for instance, and a very interesting sound representing the child’s crying.  But the feel of the piece as a whole is rather noisy, sometimes annoyingly so, and the playing of the Washington Square Ensemble conducted by Karchin is too loud, frequently overpowering the singers.

The singing is only serviceable, with the male characters working too hard at arch comic attitude.  Soprano Katrina Thurman stands out as a romantic and elegant Martha, silvery of tone and giving a spirited characterization.  Tenor Steven Ebel as Frantz and baritone Thomas Meglioranza as Celestus are merely adequate, and bass Wilbur Pauley fails to find the comic potential as Mayor Babenhausen.

I can’t recommend seeking out this CD, a production of American Opera Classics, but those who find it will likely find some charm here.  But I can’t help thinking that I’d prefer to have seen the play.