Thursday, February 5, 2009

Nifty Tristan from Dessau

Continuing my current video Tristan obsession I recently stumbled onto a little known production from the Anhiltisches Theater in Dessau in a production by Johannes Felsenstein on the Arthaus Musik label (available from Amazon and other

The Anhiltisches with a little over 1,000 seats, was built as a multi-purpose venue for opera, theatre, symphony and dance, and while perhaps not ideally suited to opera, I’d like to witness something there in the flesh.

While not a Tristan for the ages, it represents what I love most about opera: a company with a permanent roster, orchestra and theatre tackling challenging operatic repertoire. That a town of 70,000 has a real opera company capable of mounting a Tristan at all grabs my attention.

The Anhiltisches pit is semi-submerged at the rear of the stage and parked in front of a cyclorama. Designers are hampered by creating productions with no rear wall and a fully visible orchestra. Felsenstein here gives us a rear projection of the moving sea, beautifully lit to vary the times of day in which the story occurs. Lighting design, here is amazing from first note to last and is the most important element of the set – defining the terrain, locations, textures and more.

The central acting area is a smallish rectangular platform in front of the orchestra taking up roughly half of the width of the theatre/stage area – almost all action occurs here, though entrances by Mark, Melot and others happen on the lower floor level. The rectangle is a turntable, allowing not only for scene changes, but offering different perspectives of a particular scene. In an opera often considered “static” this flow of motion allows Tristan and Isolde to remain immobile, while passing through lighting effects that, offers deeper insights into their characters.

Company soprano and Bulgarian beauty Iordanka Derilove is absolutely gorgeous and offers the most physical and one of the most emotionally complex Isoldes I’ve yet seen. Her Irish Princess is intelligent, regal – every inch a future queen, yet also wild, febrile with a sexuality that frequently crosses over into the obsessive. Few Isoldes put across the irony of the first act, if at all, certainly not anywhere approaching the level Derilove does, with the flair of a Redgrave or a Streep. The mocking admonishment she delivers at

“. . . ein sanftres Weib
gewännst du nie.
Ihren Angelobten
erschlug ich ihr einst,
sein Haupt sandt' ich ihr heim;”

is dripping with irony and malice, registering in Derilove’s face and body language as much as in the voice itself . . . or more so Here it saddens me I can not be more enthusiastic about the soprano’s voice itself. It’s not unpleasant, and after Tristans’ many hours, I grew to become a bit more familiar with it, but it is not particularly distinctive and sometimes sounds like two different singers; a beautiful “lyric” Isolde in many moments, but also strident and occasionally raw sounding when she applies pressure to the bigger moments. (Derilove has a fascinating and expressive face, reminding me variously of Callas, Zoe Caldwell, Waltrud Meier and Anna Netrebko).

Lovely, throughout, Derilove’s second act, barefoot, a pink/red flowery dress appropriate for high tea, which simultaneous hugs and flows from her, she is as breathtakingly lovely. an Isolde as one could possibly imagine. Slipping out of a fur in Act III to reveal a simple white slip/gown, her very moving Liebestod combines an outsized eroticism with a spiritual awakening – a wonderful way, in my opinion, to approach Wagner.

Several German companies, including Dessau, seem to share a heldentenor in the American, Richard Decker who presents a physically solid attempt at the role, not always thrilling in voice or action, but knows his way through the role, where to harbor his resources and how to pace himself in tenordom’s perhaps most brutal act. While he remains considerably more passive than his Isolde, when he does let loose, the passion between the pair is palpable and incendiary. Oddly their voices do not always match up and the beginning of the first duet when singing in concert – something sounds “wrong” – the music sort of lurches forward trying to find proper pitch, but not always with success. Fortunately, their erotically charged second act duet - much of it sung lying down, heads facing away from the house, on the mossy green embankment surrounded by Stonehenge-type of rock formations, catches genuine fire, with Brangane’s watch and segue into Mark and Melot’s arrival, absolutely thrilling operatic theatre.

Another company girl, Alexandra Petersamer offers a world class Brangäne and garners the evening’s biggest ovation at the final curtain. She is something special, though with just a hint of stridency at the beginning of her Watch scene. When she reappears for its conclusion, it is breathtaking. This, for me, is one Wagner’s most brilliant musical and theatrical effects – combining the realms of the physical, spiritual, romantic and fantastic. It’s abrupt segue into the King’s arrival – as emotionally violent as being hit by an unseen and speeding bus.

Ulf Paulsen offers a solid, incredibly likeable Kurwenal. A great actor with an interesting and sometimes rather beautiful sound, he looks terrific and his allegiance and love for Tristan is never less than believable.

Marek Wojciechowski looks a mite young for King Mark, but has a stoic tragedy in his countenance that fits the sad monarch like a glove. He has an interesting voice, deep– almost black of color at times –with a vibrato that, occasionally accelerates into a slight tremolo. Overall, his basic timbre is warm and rich and he offers a satisfying Mark in all respects.

The entirety of the “sets” are as follows:

Act I: the wooden “ribs” of the ship below deck; Act II: Giant stone obelisks in a faintly “Stonehenge” arrangement and for Act III, a large flat rock for Tristan’s body.

With such sparseness of settings, minimal props an orchestra “behind” you, no prompter and no visible connection and guidance from the conductor, I can’t imagine a more difficult work to mount than Tristan und Isolde. If this was (as I believe) caught near the opening (or perhaps was the actual opening) I can only imagine that the performers grew more comfortable as the run progressed.

Musically, the Dessau orchestra is impressive under resident maestro, the youngish looking Golo Berg, generally belying the smallish venue and often sounding lush, and experienced in Wagnerian playing, sweeping along the big moments, and tenderly lingering on some genuine . Sometimes a lack of “bite” can be noticed (particularly in the opening phrase of the Act III vorspiel) and in the bit of music following Marke’s impressive second act solo, an oboe sounds to have a minor mishap.

While major international houses continue having problems mounting Tristan, it is encouraging to see a tiny company like Dessau, with nowhere near the resources of, say, The Met or Covent Garden, tackle one of opera’s most challenging cornerstones.

I KNOW listers who would dismiss this as “crap,” but for those Wagnerians not perpetually mourning the loss of Flagstad or Melchior or not incapable of forgiving a misplaced note, this small scale approach to Wagner may have a unique appeal.

For anyone who made it to the end of this - thank you, and I'll buy you a beer should we ever meet!

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