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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Richard Decker (tenor) – Tristan; Marek Wojciechowski (bass) – King Marke; Iordanka Derilova (soprano) – Isolde; Ulf Paulsen (baritone) – Kurwenal; Kostadin Arguirov (tenor) – Melot; Alexandra Petersamer (mezzo) – Brangäne; Jörg Brücker (tenor) – A Shepherd / A Young Sailor; Nico Wouterse (baritone) – A Helmsman; Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau, Male Chorus and supernumeraries of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau/Golo Berg
Stage Director: Johannes Felsenstein; Set and Costume Design: Stefan Rieckhoff; Dramaturgy: Susanne Schulz; Directed for Television and Video by Brooks Riley
rec. live, Anhaltisches Theater Dessau, 2007
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1; Picture format: 16:9
ARTHAUS MUSIC 101325 [2 DVDs: 224:00]


Experience Classicsonline

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 the house.

The performance 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 directions.

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 impressive.

Alexandra Petersamer 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.

Göran Forsling 



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