You don’t want to see “Selma Jezková” alone. Poul Ruders’ new opera is just too disorienting, a harsh, several-times-abridged take on a Catholic “De profundis.” Ideally, you want to go with someone who’s seen Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” on which the work is based, and who will talk non-stop—about anything—after it’s over, because the experience is so grim and monochromatic that stewing in confused silence and not complaining about it takes all the nonexistent fun out of it.
The opera had its U.S. première on Friday night, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, with Michael Schønwandt conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra. The stage of the Rose Theater, in Columbus Circle, was decked out as a gutted sanctuary that doubled as a courtroom, all scaffolded and dark, with a rose window that projected an enormous unblinking eye over the drama.
I’m still thinking about it, and I have questions:
—What is this opera about? I get the plot, kind of, but don’t know what to do with it. If you base a work on another, the conversation with the inspiring piece should be provocative. It’s unclear why Ruders cares about von Trier’s film, or what his response to it is.
—On that note, where is Björk? It’s not that I expected to hear her music, but allusion to it would have been interesting, and it would’ve lent “Jezková” some much-needed color.
—On the subject of color, why exactly is this so dystopian and monochromatic? The ethical ruminations of the piece are oppressed by the visual severity.
—And what exactly do we do about the eye in the rose window? The problem with works about blindness is that they tease you into thinking about visuality and moral acuity, and this gets tedious and prescriptive really fast. Selma’s eye disease, which her son Gene has inherited, haunts the plot, but its ramifications don’t deepen the acting or develop in tandem with the musical ideas. The threat of blindness figures into the story much like that projected eye, in-your-face but dim. Selma’s ethical dilemma unfolds too quickly to be properly explored. The disembodied grey eye, with its suggestion of a kind of cold cartoonish deism, does not provoke, and you’re happy when, after an hour, the stage finally goes dark.