Semperoper, Dresden, Germany; February 15, 2015Maggie Foyer

Courtney Richardson (Isolde) and Fabien Voranger (Tristan) in David Dawson's 'Tristan and Isolde'.  Photo © Ian Whalen

Courtney Richardson (Isolde) and Fabien Voranger (Tristan) in David Dawson’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’.
Photo © Ian Whalen

Dresden Semperoper and Richard Wagner have a special relationship, so it was a daunting prospect for choreographer, David Dawson and especially for composer Szymon Brzóska, to retell the ancient story of “Tristan and Isolde”, but they have succeeded and delivered an epic production that has inspired heroic performances.

Dawson is better known for his one act abstract ballets – “A Million Kisses to My Skin” or “The Human Seasons”. This is only his second full length narrative. His “Giselle” (2008) was also written for the Dresden company and this new ballet shows increased confidence in both interpreting the narrative and in the ensemble choreography.

“Tristan and Isolde” has at its core a love that surpasses all reason; that plunges to the depths of the soul and tears at the heart strings. It’s a fitting subject for Dawson who avoids well-worn paths preferring to carve out pristine galactic highways. His choreography searches for the extreme: ultimate extensions, pointes that skim over the stage and an aching stretch in the arms. The pas de deux, and there are many, are central and mark the passage of this doomed love on its tortured journey. The ballet operates in a vortex of passion so the brief moments of stillness are most welcome.

Linking the duets, Dawson’s dramatic line is well defined. The ballet opens to good effect with King Marke raised on a plinth rallying his soldiers to conquer new lands and fetch him a bride. Far away Isolde’s people, dancing in bright pastels, are so blissfully and irritatingly happy one is shamefully grateful for the intervention of the troops which sets the drama in motion, despite the somewhat unconvincing battle. As Isolde moves to centre stage the ballet finds its heart. She heals the wounded Tristan, only to find him in possession of her murdered uncle’s sword but her initial resistance melts in the face of irresistible attraction. Submitting to the feeling that drives them both, the duet climaxes in a still moment as she gives him a flower before he leaves.

Their next meeting on the return voyage is brilliantly staged. The tiny triangular raft on a vast stage symbolises the depth and breadth of their feelings and Dawson creates a duet of total abandon. Having resolved on a death pact, they break open the poison vial only to release a cloud of golden dust which increases their ardour – and constructs another memorable image.

The second Act is set in King Marke’s court where the work ratchets up several notches until you can feel the sinews crack, the desperate lovers are consumed by unrequited love and tragedy is inevitable. When they are discovered in their final tryst, Tristan is mortally wounded and in the final breathless moment, Isolde collapse over his lifeless body.

Courtney Richardson  and Fabien Voranger in 'Tristan and Isolde'.  Photo © Ian Whalen

Courtney Richardson and Fabien Voranger in ‘Tristan and Isolde’.
Photo © Ian Whalen

In Courtney Richardson, Fabien Voranger and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, Dawson has a formidable team. Isolde is not a role for a ballet girl – it needs a woman, and one of dignity and stature and in Richardson, Dawson has found an interpreter to meet his needs. Her technique is formidable and she is able to convey the emotions through the line of her arabesque or the turn of her head but above all it is her intensity and innate authority that hold our attention.

Voranger is a commanding Tristan and the pair achieve balance emotionally and technically in the ravishing pas de deux. He comes to the fore in the second act where the burden of loyalty to his King and adopted father are so sorely tried. His solos chart this pain and his duet with Marke, where the two men mirror each other’s movements as their heart yearn for the same women, is deeply moving.

With the emotions of the lovers operating at fever pitch, the ensemble sections are a welcome contrast and display the company at their best. In Marke’s court they bag some of Dawson’s best choreography, elegant, spirited and beautiful to watch, dressed in a ravishing array of blue grey flowing robes, designed by Yumiko Takeshima.

Szymon Brzóska has created a score to suit the epic scale with layers of rich instrumental sound and stirring dynamics that carry the tale through wars and over the seas. I felt the music served the duets less well where I longed for a heart rending cadence to wallow in.

Eno Henze’s design of monolithic slabs set the work in that timeless zone between medieval and hi-tech and are constantly shifting to reflect the emotional turmoil. They form effective surfaces for the play of Bert Dalhuysen’s lighting that shapes the drama and draws focus on the characters.

King Marke, the honourable man, is interpreted magnificently by Raphaël Coumes-Marquet. In robust, convincing gestures he stamps his authority but in the second act he has the opportunity to display a wide range of emotions: love, jealousy, loyalty and resignation. Coumes-Marquet retires from the stage at the end of this season. He will be sorely missed by his loyal following in Dresden but he now moves into the role of ballet master where his talents and knowledge will be an asset to the company.