A stunningly memorable new production of Tristan und Isolde at Dessau’s Anhaltische Theatre

GermanyGermany Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Actors, Chorus of Anhaltischen Theaters Dessau, Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau / Markus L. Frank (conductor). Anhaltische Theater Dessau, 19.5.2024. (GT)

Anhaltische Theater Dessau’s Tristan und Isolde © Claudia Heysel

Director – Michael Schachermaier
Set designer – Paul Lerchbaumer
Costumes – Alexander Djurkov Hotter
Dramaturgy – Yuri Colossale
Chorus director – Sebastian Kennerknecht

Isolde – Iordanka Derilova
Tristan – Tilmann Unger
König Marke – Michael Tews
Kurwenal – Kay Stiefermann
Melot – Barış Yavuz
Brangäne – Anne Schuldt
Shepherd – David Ameln
Steerman – Pawel Tomczak
Voice of the Young Seaman – David Ameln

Often called the ‘Bayreuth of the North’, the Anhaltische Theatre Dessau in Saxony-Anhalt can boast one of the finest performing stages in Germany – particularly for its exceptional stagings of Wagner operas – and possesses one of the largest revolving stages in the country. Opera was first performed here in 1794 at the Fürstliche Reitbahn with the Anhalt Philharmonic Orchestra under Friedrich Wilhelm Bossann. Dessau’s Wörlitzer Park was the venue for the theatre, yet it was closed by Duke Leopold III in 1810. Several venues were used until 1938 when the new Dessau State Theatre opened with a performance of Der Freischϋtz, and at the time, was the biggest theatre north of the Alps. In 1945, the theatre was damaged by bombing and in 1949 reopened with Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Dessau has a proud history of staging operas by Wagner; the first production was in 1857 with a performance of Tannhäuser, and a decade later, Lohengrin followed, and just seven months after its premiere, Die Meistersinger von Nϋrnberg was staged in 1869 in the same year as Die fliegende Holländer. Wagner visited the theatre several times and praised the orchestra. Notably, Wagner selected thirteen members of the Dessau Court Orchestra for the initial Wagner Festival in 1876. Cosima Wagner, the composer’s widow directed a production of Hansel und Gretel in 1894. The tradition continued in 1893 when Der Ring des Nibelungen appeared in Dessau. Between 1953 and 1965, Dessau staged annual festivals of Wagner’s operas, and despite not being staged for many years, in 2015, the ‘Bauhaus-Ring’ by André Bücker made headlines for its original staging.

The last staging of Tristan und Isolde in Dessau was in 2005 by Johannes Felsenstein (son of the director of the Komische Theatre Walter Felsenstein) which is available on DVD. Today the theatre is a multi-purpose venue, and the orchestra has its programme of concerts including chamber recitals at other venues. The Saxony-Anhalt region boasts a rich history in the arts; J.S. Bach lived and composed a few miles away in Köthen, while Martin Luther initiated his reformist church in nearby Wittenberg. The city of Dessau is most famous today for the Bauhaus School founded by Walter Gropius and the city’s architecture reflects his influence. Many of the old town’s historic buildings have been restored to their former glory, including parts of the old Royal Palace.

When this staging premiered in January this year, it was overlooked as it followed the premiere of a widely acclaimed Tristan und Isolde at the Semper Opera in Dresden. Yet this Dessau production is of outstanding merit, no less for the singing of the principal roles and its production – remarkably – all of the singers are from the Anhaltische Theatre Dessau.

The opening bars were impressive in asserting the Tristan chord, and the extended harmonic sequences of cadences and building of tension that would unfold in intensity until the final bars. The curtains opened to reveal a simple rectangular structure hinting at the ship’s bridge and openings through which the action took place – not without a hint at the Bauhaus. This minimalist design allowed the closing of the structure by panels for a more intimate background. In the opening scene, the young sailor’s singing ‘Westwärts schweift der Blick’ was eerie yet set up the scene magnificently for what was to follow.

Iordanka Derilova (Isolde), Tilmann Unger (Tristan), and Anne Schuldt (Brangäne) © Claudia Heysel

Isolde sat in the lower part as Brangäne (Anne Schuldt) was above as if protecting her – this central scene opened up to reveal the ship as it approached Cornwall. In his opening phrases, Kurwenal’s ‘Auf auf! Ihr Frauen!’ revealed Kay Stiefermann’s wonderfully noble distinct baritone – while Tilmann Unger’s Tristan exhibited a magnificent heldentenor gleaming in beauty in his ‘Herr Morold zog zu Meere her’.

The Brangäne of Anne Schuldt was vibrant, and her voice always subordinated to Isolde, whose soprano developed from a fragile low voice to a voluptuous warmth – with just a hint of vibrato – with her singing combined with hands and arm movements and ever so meaningful facial and eye movements. Iordanka Derilova expressed this through swiftly changing emotions ranging from hatred to great love. As the ship approached land, the male chorus was superb – magnificently showing off the superb acoustic value of the theatre – the gritty male voices resounding through the theatre. Suddenly to bring the act to a close, King Marke made a startling entry from the auditorium dressed in a red cardinal cloak and swiftly took Isolde away as the curtain descended.

The second act staging was augmented by a red-carpeted stair on the right representing the ascent to King Marke’s castle. The love scene was movingly illustrated as the lovers embraced against the imagery of a full moon, while above the figure of Brangäne was on watch. Brangäne was one of the outstanding singers of the evening – every phrase was sung with both gravitas and emotion as she repeated her warning to the lovers below, ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’. At last, it was Kurwenal who interrupted them with his urgent, ‘Rette dich, Tristan!’ The King Marke of Michael Tews was another highlight, in which every facial movement revealing his shock and anger at the betrayal by his closest friend and that of his wife. His darkly expressive bass has all the deep gravitas required for the role, and his body movements augmented his singing. The costume of a red cardinal added a special note to his portrayal invoking religious solemnity. In the fight scene with the traitor Melot, Tristan threw down his sword and Melot’s spear struck him down.

The opening scene in Act III revealed a boat in the background, with a table and chairs in the foreground as we hear the soulful harmonies of a cor anglais played by a musician on the bridge  – Kurwenal is treating Tristan on his deathbed, and as Tristan dreams, ‘Verflucht sei, furchtbarer Trank!’ there enter mysteriously (similar to Katharina Wagner’s staging of the opera at Bayreuth) five maidens – all in Isolde’s blue dress – one of whom is pregnant, and as the scene evolves, their men enter and either embrace or stand closely by their lovers. The appearance of five pairs of lovers seemed to have some connection, as if through lust, attraction, or by chance, perhaps showing a different aspect of love and death from Isolde and Tristan’s passion. The girls make origami paper boats as the remorseful Marke sings, ‘Tot denn alles!’. Isolde enters, her singing enhanced by her superbly expressive portrayal through every movement of her hands and arms, ‘in das Welt-Atems. wehendem All. Tristan rises up and takes a seat and looks out into the auditorium, and as the final bars of the Liebestod resound, ‘Mild und leise wie er lächelt’, Isolde takes her place next to him taking his hands in hers as the curtains descend.

The stage setting was simple and effective, and the movement on the stage was excellent by bringing out every aspect of the plot, with either long developed passages or swiftly moving action, such as the killing of Melot in the final act. Several unique elements of the staging were executed with great beauty most notably in the love scene portrayed by a great full moon beyond Isolde and Tristan’s first embrace.

From the very first bars, the orchestra were superb in bringing out all the themes of the score masterfully directed by Markus L. Franck. Of the singers, there were magnificent characterisations by Kay Stiefermann as Kurwenal and the Brangäne of Anne Schuldt, but the finest performances of the evening were those of the leading characters by Iordanka Derilova and Tilman Unger who were world-class in their portrayal and vocal characterisation. In all, this fine production masterminded by Michael Schachermaier allowed the singing to dominate and the narrative to develop – there were no weak spots – the entire production was also blessed by simple sets by Paul Lerchbaumer that dovetailed well into the narrative developed from Yuri Colossale’s dramaturgy.

In conclusion, I have seen many different stagings of this opera – but this Dessau production is one of the finest that I have had the good fortune to attend, both for the magnificent singing and acting from the two central performers and through to the secondary parts all of whom are contracted to the Anhaltische Theatre Dessau together with an outstanding, and memorable production. The theatre has a vibrant repertoire embracing well-known operas and also less-popular operas, and there is much to attract visitors to Dessau for the wealth of cultural attractions both here and in the Saxony-Anhalt region.

Gregor Tassie

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