The DVD version of the opera Selma Jezkova by Poul Ruders is based on the central character of Lars von Trier's (and Bjork's) Dancer in the Dark. First of all, there are many crazy people who love opera for a lot of crazy self immolation-type reasons. I'm one of those nutty people who think opera is only about music---libretto a lot less--and singers, staging etc. etc. at the bottom--the latter can never save or make an opera. Having gotten my bias out of the way, Poul Ruders is a very competent composer--- the score skillfully sets the text from moment to moment, but there is no really strong dramatic shape or contour of this 70 minute, some-what truncated opera. Even more important, stylistically this music has nothing to do mid/late 20th century America and everything to do with the psycho-hyper expressionism of Berg's Wozzeck or even Schoenberg's Erwartung. (early 20th C. Vienna). Although many modern operas, for some reason, have this university sanctioned, politically correct style (John Cogligano and David del Tredici to mention two on this side of the pond) where the main `soupy-goo' is `Erwartung ` sloshing and bubbling along, with brief vignettes in a more vernacular style i.e., church hymns, negro spirituals, folk songs--all introduced with no real integration with the score. It's as if the composer is saying---`look at me I write in this really complicated style but I'm also can get my hands dirty with the peoples' music without getting too dirty'. The pity is the vernacular stuff just plunks in like early Copland ballets then just as quickly replaces by a glissing horn, high strings clusters, glissing timpani (see orchestration handbook of expressionist clichés). On top of this, there are not enough arias, way too much recitative, and no sense that the musical structure is driving the libretto. It often seems like a pastiche of sections strung together (all be it, skillfully) with no strong shaping of the narrative-- just the composer writing one line of music to the next. It seems a shame Ruder, who is obviously very gifted, would take such an approach---but maybe there were external pressures. Furthermore, (I hate sounding like an uber-cranky reviewer) insult to injury, the libretto, from `Dancer in the Dark', doesn't help the tired, dramatic quality. Suffice to say, the libretto passes the simplistic Marxist/Feminist melodrama/propaganda test with flying colors---but I suffered through this with the movie (though I loved the music numbers and once again von Triers fascinates and frustrates the audience like no other). It would be great if Bjork's songs became the cantus firmus of the score--now that would make it a post-modern original, much like David Lynch took the footage of his failed TV series and made it into the masterpiece "Mulholland Drive".
In contrast, I found the production excellent. Great singing, good orchestra balance with the singers, and really accurate playing, and effective design and sets. Special mention to singers Ylva Killberg, Hanne Fischer, Palle Knudsen, and Gert Henning-Jensen for very assured performances. The DVD production is top notch--looks like a day worth of filming of the live production, so there are lots of creative camera angles that could never be done in real time. If it weren't for the music, this opera would be a great gem for your DVD opera collection.