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Andrew Quint
Fanfare, May 2009

For this 2007 Tristan und Isolde presented at Dessau’s Anhaltische Theater, the conductor and orchestra are positioned behind the singers in full view of the audience, as with a concert performance. The stage is a small rectangular affair that rotates more than is really necessary; sets are quite minimal—the beams of a ship’s hull for act I, a half dozen phallic-appearing stones for act II, even fewer rocks for act III. Large, unchanging vistas of the sea and Cornwall coast (for the middle act) are projected behind the orchestra. Costumes are 19th centuryish. There are no “extras” included on this DVD set, and the liner note is silent on the concepts behind the production’s design, but King Marke sure has the appearance of a wealthy businessman—are we watching Richard W. and the Wesendoncks in action?

The star of the show is Bulgarian soprano Iordanka Derilova, who, with fiery red hair and lots of attitude, looks the part of a youthful Irish princess. Derilova is unquestionably the sexiest Isolde I’ve seen, in the theater or on video, and the middle act is her best. She appears barefoot in a flimsy dress (later removed to reveal a red negligee) and her deportment and vocalism exude a girlish eagerness, a sexual readiness that’s quite alluring. She straddles the supine Tristan and descends onto his midsection during the love duet. Derilova’s performance in act I is also spot-on, full of contempt and sarcasm. The “Liebestod” doesn’t disappoint.

To partner Derilova, it’s too bad that Fabio doesn’t do Heldentenor roles, as Richard Decker is a Tristan with middle-aged spread. His voice, though of adequate size and possessing a pleasing timbre, lacks heroic ring. It must be said that Decker doesn’t run out of steam in the final act, as so many Tristans do, but stamina isn’t enough—there’s not the sense of urgency and pain-induced raving heard with the very finest representations of this tortuous role.

Alexandra Petersamer sings confidently, with an appealing warmth that communicates tenderness and concern—the audience clearly approves of her portrayal of Brangäne with their response at the curtain calls. Ulf Paulsen is the weakest of the principals, possessing a lightweight (for Wagner) baritone without much character. In addition, his Kurwenal has a tinge of arrogance, even nastiness, in act I. Marek Wojciechowski has a commanding bass well suited to Marke, but doesn’t infuse the act I monologue with the kind of pathos that René Pape or Matti Salminen bring to the table.

The orchestral execution is good, though the recording favors the singers to a significant degree; this appears to be a consequence of the way the performance was miked and mixed rather than of the unusual disposition of the instrumental forces in the theater. Golo Berg’s leadership is idiomatic, if not revelatory. One detail of the production that must have seemed like a good idea at the time was to have the English horn-player, whose solo passages in the final act represent the shepherd’s piping, perform standing in front of the orchestra, in a spotlight. She even gets a bow with the singers at the end, considerably exaggerating the importance of this one instrumentalist.

The PCM stereo sound is good, but avoid the Dolby Digital 5.1 (there’s no DTS option)—the multichannel presentation adds little, with the offstage horns at the outset of act II sounding no more distant in surround than with two channels.

Video quality is very good, though be advised that the picture is “letterboxed.” Subtitles can be had in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. For a Tristan on DVD, my top choices are Barenboim’s 1983 Bayreuth version with René Kollo and Joanna Meier (DG), and a Glyndebourne performance conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, starring Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme (Opus Arte). But for Derilova’s sensual Isolde, some collectors will definitely be seduced into a purchase.

John P McKelvey
American Record Guide, March 2009

When I was sent this item for review, it seemed a weak entry in a field already crowded with really heavy hitters. I didn’t recognize a single cast member and had never heard of the conductor or his orchestra. Was I ever wrong! It turned out to be first-rate in most respects, and is surely well worth its modest price.

This is an interesting and often inspired performance of Tristan und Isolde. The work of course revolves around Isolde, and it is not going too far to think that it is actually all about her. In the distant past the role was taken most conspicuously by singers like Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, and Helen Traubel—all of whom had big, loud voices and figures to match. More recently we have heard singers of likewise majestic proportions like Deborah Polaski and Jane Eaglen, with voices huge but wobbly almost to the point of caricature. In this production we have Ms Derilova, an obscure Bulgarian soprano, who is really small and very good looking. She has a trim, slim build like a competitive swimmer. I wondered at first how she would ever muster enough sound to be heard over the large orchestra. But when she first opened her mouth an astounding volume of clear and tonally rich sound emerged. It was soon obvious that she can really belt it out. Moreover, she was as strong in the concluding Liebestod as at the very beginning. She is always on pitch. Her vibrato can be wide, but it never lapses into the sort of out-of-control wobble that is now so common. Unless I am mistaken, and although she may be the smallest singer ever to sing the role, this 36-year old ball of fire is destined for stardom.

Then there’s the Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau and its conductor Golo Berg. How does this team fare alongside those based in London, Berlin, Bayreuth, New York, and Vienna?

Well, a lot better than you might imagine. It is a little less polished, but it surely comes off well in comparison with the London Philharmonic in the OpusArte recording (July/Aug 2008). What’s more, Mr Berg’s lively tempos are far more effective than the lethargic Belohlavek. He manages to finish the whole work 20 minutes faster. By this measure his overall time exactly matches Karl Böhm’s famous Bayreuth recording.

Though Derilova is clearly in a class of her own, the rest of the cast is generally also quite good. The single exception is Richard Decker as Tristan. Of course, almost any tenor would suffer alongside this Bulgarian powerhouse. Still, Mr Decker’s voice, though always on pitch, responsive and well-controlled, is kind of small for this heroic role. Also, he is overweight, with an abdominal bulge that is not at all attractive next to Ms Derilova’s trim and athletic figure. Alexandra Petersamer as Brang„ne is very good, coming off nobly in her big scene in Act II. Ulf Paulson is also very good as Kurwenal, while Marek Wojciechowski gives an adequately sympathetic view of Marke. The helmsman’s bit part is a virtuoso act by Nice Wouterse.

As you might expect, this production does not adhere to a literal representation of the time and scenery intended by the composer. The costumes are in fact those of Wagner’s own time, the late 19th Century. The illusion of the sea and the ship are rather well conveyed by the set and by projected backgrounds; the moving waves and other scenic elements are portrayed with commendable realism. The orchestra pit is behind the stage in the space and between the stage and the screen. You can often see it. As a whole, this production seems easy to assimilate and relatively conservative. The camera work is good, the colors rich and saturated, the details sharp and clear. The picture format is 16:9, the sound PCM two-channel stereo or five-channel Dolby surround. In the PCM mode it is clear, undistorted, and near-perfect in balance and equalization. Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian.

This was for me a thrilling experience, and I regard it as quite competitive with any other video production. Its musical performance may not reach the standards of the unexcelled Böhm at Bayreuth, but it isn’t all that far behind.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, February 2009

I say this as no great revelation to many readers: there is no more—in fact probably less—action in Wagner’s operas than in those of Verdi, Puccini and others. The fact that Wagner’s operas are generally twice as long as most of the others owes everything to his tendency to plumb the depths of his characters’ minds and emotions, and of wringing out the last ounce of profundity from his stories. Wagner wants the viewer to feel the suffering of his characters, their joy, their frustration, and their triumphs. Any performance that conveys these feelings this with general success, especially in Tristan und Isolde, must be counted a fine one. This new Tristan, from the Anhaltisches Theater in Dessau, Germany, is a good performance indeed. The principals in the cast are all good. I especially like the Brangänge of Alexandra Petersamer, and judging from the audience’s reaction when she took her bows at the end, they did too. Iordanka Derilova (pronounced, Yordahnka Dair-ree-luhva) has a beautiful voice and delivers a heartrending Isolde. Neither she nor Richard Decker, who sings Tristan, is a household name, but on the evidence here, I would say they deserve greater recognition. Decker sings well throughout, though he seems to be uncomfortable when he’s singing while lying on his back, dying in the last act. Still, though he shifts a bit uncomfortably now and then, he manages well enough, deftly conveying, in fact, the sense of struggle that Tristan is experiencing. Marek Wojciechowski delivers an imposing King Marke and Ulf Paulsen’s Kurwenal is also quite convincing.

This is the third Tristan I’ve reviewed in about the last two years here at Classical Net. I was very impressed by the first of them, on Opus Arte, that featured John Treleaven and Deborah Polaski in the leads and Bertrand de Billy conducting, but found the second, also on Opus Arte, that featured Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme in a Glyndebourne production led by Jiří Bĕlohlávek, even better, the best, in fact, that I had ever encountered. This new one then goes up against stiff competition, but comes off well. It’s hard to rank these productions, but as far as the singing and orchestral work go, I would say the new one falls just short of the Bĕlohlávek.

Oddly, the sets to both of these productions are bleak and not dissimilar. The action takes place in the Anhalt production on a circular sort of stage that comes out in front of the orchestra. The way the production is filmed, the orchestra can be seen in the background throughout, with scenery just above them. It’s a slightly distracting yet haunting sort of effect, but also comes across as perhaps just a little cheap-looking: the sets are rather barren with little else on the stage but the characters; so perhaps someone in charge decided to make the orchestra part of the scenery to fill things out a bit. I hope that this person in charge wasn’t trying to send the message that Wagner’s orchestra is utterly vital to the work—as if we don’t know that. In any event, the production works, at least for me.

One oddity about the performance: the English Horn player, who by the way delivers splendid work in the last act playing the "ancient" shepherd melody, stands during her performance and can be seen quite clearly several times. At the end of the opera, she is called on stage with the conductor Golo Berg and the singers to take her bows. I looked to see her name in the booklet and in the credits on the DVD, but alas, she’s nowhere listed. However, at the theater’s website I think I tracked her down: she is Almut van Drüner. I’ve gone to the trouble to credit her, since she deserves recognition here for her fine work.

The orchestra plays well too, and Golo Berg, another non-household name here, conducts with authority in this difficult Wagner work. His tempos are generally brisk, finishing ahead of the Bĕlohlávek by 13 minutes and the de Billy by 25 minutes. Quite a difference, but he makes an excellent case for his quicker tempos. The sound is excellent for the singers throughout, but the orchestra is a little distant and has a more shallow sound. In the end, one must count this as a fine Tristan, one that is worth the effort of committed Wagnerians to purchase.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, January 2009

At the [Anhaltisches Theater in Dessau ] production of Tristan und Isolde from last year [2008], 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…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…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.

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