Dancer in the Dark, Opera House, Copenhagen

City squares, school halls and community centres came alive with new Nordic music last week in Copenhagen. In our satiated age, Nordic Music Days aimed for a return to the intimacy of the salon, when a private concert was the ultimate luxury. The results ranged from quirky to extravagant.

Incredibly, the first Nordic Music Days were held in 1888. A Nordic understanding of innovation as tradition has helped to keep new music alive and well ever since.

It is firmly in this tradition that Poul Ruders has composed his fourth opera. Dancer in the Dark is a 70-minute operatic retelling of Lars von Trier’s eponymous 2000 film, as Danish an occasion as you could get.

Film as the basis for opera has become increasingly popular in recent years. La Belle et la Bête, Dead Man Walking, Lost Highway and a swathe of other films have found their way to the stage, with varying degrees of success. Arguably, famous films have become part of today’s common cultural consciousness, just as the Greek myths that formed the basis of so many baroque operas used to be.

The problem is, why see the opera when you can still see the film? Too many attempts become less effective rehashes of the original. Those that succeed best are often those that depart furthest from the source.

Henrik Engelbrecht’s libretto for Ruders’ opera pares von Trier’s story back to its essentials, reducing the number of characters and the action to the bare bones. What he keeps is the film’s operatic form, where the action stops regularly for ballad-like arias.

In the hands of director Kasper Holten, this becomes a moral examination of Selma’s choice to sacrifice her life for her son’s sight. After the event, how would the boy evaluate what has happened?

In Christian Lemmerz’s grim Gothic sets, the opera is told as a flashback, a child’s reflections during his mother’s funeral. Ruders’ score is darkly pictorial, largely tonal and highly sentimental. Michael Schønwandt conducts with lyrical precision but not even he can make this mediocre music truly sparkle.

An even cast gives its considerable best, while Holten strives to lend a psychological dimension to the action. It is a committed account but it fails to show a work that could stand its own ground against von Trier’s striking film. ()

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.