Anhaltisches Theater in Dessau is a multi-venue for theatre, music
theatre (opera, operetta and musical) as well as ballet and even
puppet theatre. They also give a number of orchestral concerts.
Theatre life in Dessau has a long history, having a permanent
ensemble as early as 1794. The present building was inaugurated
in 1938 and with its 1,250 seats was regarded as the largest north
of the Alps. Towards the end of WW2 it was bombed and practically
totally destroyed but it was rebuilt and opened again in 1949.
Until 1994 it was known as Landestheater Dessau. The theatre has
a small ensemble to which is added guests at most productions.
At the production of Tristan und Isolde from last year,
to be seen on these DVDs, Kurwenal, Melot and the Helmsman are
permanent members, but the impressive Bulgarian soprano Iordanka
Derilova, who takes the testing role of Isolde, also belongs to
starts in silence with the titles only, clean in white against
black, and gradually the soft opening of the prelude is heard.
The curtain rises and we are exposed to a beautiful seascape,
alternating with close-ups of Tristan and Isolde. They come
closer to each other, moving in circles until, at the climax,
they are standing face to face. Then, after a while, when the
prelude decreases in intensity, they walk slowly in different
After a while it
turns out that, viewed from the audience, from where also much
of the performance is being filmed, there is a revolving stage
in the foreground with the orchestra behind the stage, partly
visible. This reminds me of the Hartmut Haenchen/Pierre Audi
Ring cycle in Amsterdam, where the orchestra was in a
central position and the characters moved around the pit. The
Dessau solution is not revolutionary in the same way and probably
the theatre is constructed this way. Occasional glimpses of
the orchestra and – primarily – the waving arms of conductor
Golo Berg called this layout to mind every now and then. I can’t
say that it disturbed me very much – and it could also be seen
as a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. Behind the orchestra
there is a wide screen with projections to enhance the rather
sparse sets – often very evocatively.
The revolving stage
is diligently employed and without being sensational in any
way the production highlights the central conflicts of the drama.
For better or worse a heavy workload falls on the leading roles
to characterise the emotions and the outcome of this is a bit
ambivalent in the case of the love-couple. Iordanka Derilova’s
Isolde is intense, hot-tempered and acts with sometimes histrionically
exaggerated gestures and poses; Richard Decker, on the other
hand, is a recessed Tristan, rather awkward at times and there
is very little glow in his approach – neither scenically nor
vocally. Considering Tristan’s merits in sundry respects he
is portrayed here as a rather dull person. But the approach
is not wholly negative or misleading. There is undeniable warmth
in the reading, in the second act Decker is not exactly fiery
but at least one can feel sympathy for him and it seems that
he is still drugged from Brangäne’s love-potion, whereas the
effect on Isolde is of the utmost infatuation and sexual activity.
She mounts a passive Tristan. In the third act you can’t expect
a mortally wounded warrior to be very powerful and here his
recessed acting and singing is an asset. Interestingly, though,
and paradoxically, he also finds the glow, the shine one wants
from a great Tristan. When I saw him as Samson in Stockholm
a few months ago I commented on his steely top register while
in the middle register he was a bit dry. I can fully understand,
though, that to be able to manage the last act of Tristan
und Isolde the tenor has to economize on the vocal resources
during the previous two. In the last resort Decker’s Tristan
wins on points while Iordanka Derilova’s dynamite packet of
Isolde goes for KO from the beginning. She is also vocally attractive.
She doesn’t have the laser-beam high notes of a Birgit Nilsson
nor the creamy beauty of Nina Stemme but the intensity of her
acting is well matched by her singing and her Liebestod is certainly
is a Brangäne to match this fiery Isolde – they are not unlike
each other in vocal timbre – and Ulf Paulsen is a powerful Kurwenal.
In King Marke’s long monologue Marek Wojciechowski emerges as
a noble and dignified character and the scene is a vocal high-spot.
The supporting singers are all well in the picture and Golo
Berg conducts with obvious affection for the score.
Readers who already
own Barenboim’s Bayreuth set (see review)
or Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s Glyndebourne set (see review),
which, as I wrote in the former review, are more complementary
than competing, may not feel enticed by this ‘provincial’ production
with largely unknown singers. I feel a bit ashamed that my expectations
were so low when I started watching but it turned out to be
a very likeable performance. Big names in themselves are no
sure-fire guarantee for success (though the two sets mentioned
above certainly are) and this Dessau production proves that
also ‘minor’ companies can produce excellent things.