Monday, August 01, 2011

The Touring Test #2

Here's a scathing review from the NY Times of our performance friday night of Ruder's "Selma Jezkova": NY Times. This wasn't what I expected, but I guess there's a grain of truth in all he wrote, although I definitely do not agree that Ylva Kihlberg's only quality was "some vulnerability".
The review is more or less congruent with the danish reviews after the premiere last year, so the opera must be said to have had a rather rough birth.

As hinted in my former post (The Touring Test #1), I thought the performance was both a success and a failure. A success because of the audience reception, which was warm (and actually favored Ruder's in particular), and a failure for one particular reason: On stage, the production suffered the worst possible technical breakdown.
The crux of the opera is the hanging of Selma, a tricky technical affair with a ton of safety procedures, all to ensure that Selma, who is literaly walking the plank 5 meters in the air, doesn't fall or get caugt in anything nasty. On a musical cue the plank dissapears beneath her, and she is left dangling from what looks like the noose, but is in fact a body harness with the noose only attached by a very thin thread. The effect is stunning and powerful, and even if she only falls about 15 cm and is in no actual danger, the build up of tension at that point, her screams and leg spasms etc. all create a strong illusion.
So, what went wrong? Something (perhaps some misguided gaffer-tape) prevented the plank from falling when it was released, so after an intense 30 seconds of our stagemanager shouting "Jump! Jump!" from the wings, and panicky cartoon effects being almost physically visible from the performers on stage...

...Ylva decided to simply jump off the plank, helped along by a cautious push from Gert Henning Jensen (who plays the District Attorney), now on the plank next to her searching for a way to resolve the problem.
In hindsight, Gert should never have gone out on the plank to push her off, because had the mechanism suddenly worked, he would have fallen with nothing to save him. Gives me the creeps to think about...
I imagine Ylva must have been momentarily traumatised by having to jump to her death, and I swear I heard a very honest (and very swedish) "Neeeej!" escape her throat as she jumped. I spent the remaining couple of minutes of the opera with my head buried in my hands, repeating the same four-letter word in my mind over and over again. (Not the one that rhymes with 'duck', the one that rhymes with 'pit').

Just your standard run-of-the-mill Newyorker.

That moment makes or breaks the opera. The 70 minutes that precede it are meaningless without it, and the intensity of the effect leaves a longlasting impression. That night, it failed.
I don't know exactly how many working hours and how much money have gone into preparing for this tour and for this performance, but at that moment it felt like it was all for nothing. It was heartbreaking, and incredibly frustrating.
As always, it's hard to say how many people even recognised that something was wrong, but the shouts from the stagemanager should have alerted them to the fact. Nonetheless, the audience applauded heartedly, and the initial responses were really quite positive.

I have enjoyed working on "Selma" immensely, growing attached to it from early on, proofreading the score for Edition Wilhelm Hansen, conducting rehearsals in Copenhagen and now following it on tour to the Big Apple. I enjoy the compositional stile of the piece, especially in the duets between Selma/Bill and Selma/Kathy and never grew tired of working on it, which is more than I can say for some of the more established pieces I've worked on.

Hopefully another opportunity will arise for me to personally conquer New York. This was a great and interesting trip, but it certainly left me hungry for more.
P.S. did I mention that one of our pianists got bit in the foot by an angry rat? Well, that's New York for you I guess.
“If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.” - Woody Allen
- Jesper


David Starobin said...

I was at the performance, Jesper. I knew the hanging had gone awry because I knew the production from the DVD. That said, it really made very little difference to most people's perception of the piece, which is about the story and the score. The score was played beautifully, and the story was unaffected by the missing 'effect'. I spoke to many people who had no idea anything had gone wrong.

Regarding the review: there are bits of truth in it, but it is really a very inaccurate portrayal of the piece. First of all, the score is VERY strong. The moments the NYT critic compared to early Bernstein are certainly nothing like early Bernstein. Ruders integrates these forays into tonality with skill and purpose. We hear "Americana" because we are in America and the composer want to put quotation remarks around that fact, musically. It IS shocking at first, but surprises and shocks are almost to be expected in a Ruders score!

The main argument in his review is about using pre-existing material (the film) and not living up to the film. The opera should have been judged as what it was in his review, but it was not. Instead, it was saddled with the history of the critic's knowledge and feelings about the film. This was the same argument by the critics at the Copenhagen premiere.

My reservations about the opera are mostly about the libretto and production, which move the action ahead quickly, sometimes without being clear about what has transpired. But the score is so strong that it carries the action forward, and the viewer along with it.

Congratulations to all involved! Even without a proper hanging, the opera reached the hearts of many in the audience here in New York.

--David Starobin
New Rochelle, NY

Jesper L. S. Nordin said...

Dear David

I agree with you; it is frustrating that reviewers can't seem to judge the opera independently from the von Trier film.
Perhaps we are asking to much, but it is disheartening to experience a piece like this - that I personally enjoyed so much working on - not getting its full acclaim in the press.

I'm very happy to hear your experience with the hanging mishap; that most didn't notice. It softens the blow a bit, but you can imagine our dissapointment backstage...
Did you see it in Copenhagen by the way? The hanging got to me almost every time I saw it in rehearsal (which was...many), and I hope you had a chance to witness it as it was intended.

- Jesper

If you could magically create your dream conductor, but he/she could only posess one quality, he/she should preferably be...