Mastodon Deborah Polaski / Johan Botha: Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: The Duet Scenes - The Wagnerian

Deborah Polaski / Johan Botha: Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: The Duet Scenes

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 10 December 2011 | 7:38:00 pm

I have just purchased  this (yes I know, a little late)  along with "Deborah Polaski / Heidi Brunner / Bertrand De Billy: Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Highlights" - putting the two together gives you, if not a nearly complete Tristan, than a version a little closer to one than this alone (but where is Tristan's third act!). While I have still only investigated its surface - and then incompletely -   it has both intrigued and delighted me enough to present the following from the publisher for your attention. As I bought it as a digital download, these notes seem to act as a good a set of "booklet notes" as anything else

Deborah Polaski, soprano · Johan Botha, tenor
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra · Betrand de Billy, conductor

This SACD includes all duets from Tristan und Isolde. It complements the solo recording with highlights from the opera with Deborah Polaski as Isolde (OC 602). Both SACDs together contain almost the entire Isolde-role. Polaski has sung this role in opera houses such as Dresden, Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna, Hamburg and Barcelona, and is accompanied here by conductor Bertrand de Billy. Johan Botha’s artistic home is in Vienna, where he has sung all important roles in his repertoire. In 2003, he was awarded the title Austrian Singer of Merit. Botha appears regularly at the New York MET, the Berlin State Opera, Covent Garden London and at the Salzburg Festival. Bertrand de Billy was principle conductor at the rebuilt Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona from 1999 to 2004. His triumphs here included a Mozart cycle as well as a new production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (Harry Kupfer) and Tristan und Isolde.


In 1865, the lovers Tristan and Isolde – still the most famous couple in the entire German opera literature – set foot on stages throughout the world. But as rapidly as the public came to know the troubles and hardships of the nothing less than monstrous roles of the title figures – so little is actually known, even until the present day, about what moves, or rather, doesn’t move, the two main protagonists. Some of the well-informed can throw Schopenhauer’s name into the discussion, but this means to fall for the composer’s line, the work’s brilliant creator Richard Wagner, who took pains to obscure the situation. But even those with only a fleeting knowledge of Schopenhauer’s philosophy must shake their heads in amazement after pondering Wagner’s texts – no less than the famous philosopher himself must have done as he wordlessly refused Wagner’s obsequious advances, except for a few not very friendly comments in the margins of the “Ring”-script that Wagner had sent him. Although he conceded Wagner some talent as a poet, he felt Wagner should forget about composition.

In any case, the ‘pairing’ of Wagner and Schopenhauer turned out to be a productive misunderstanding. Hans Mayer has already discussed Wagner’s tendency to be an intellectual follower, i.e. the composer’s life-long tendency simply to accumulate ideas from texts of others – regardless of their contexts – that confirmed his own views and to add them to his overall system of thought. Thus, today – more correctly than not – Wagner’s ‘story’ is seen more as a correction of Schopenhauer through the spirit of Feuerbach, or, as has also been sarcastically noted, in Tristan, Schopenhauer is put onto his feet by Wagner through Feuerbach.

And the lovers themselves? If one looks at their two central encounters in the first and second acts, which are documented on this CD, much remains either unsaid, misunderstood – or at best – vague, until the end. Tristan and Isolde constantly talk at cross purposes or simply don’t answer each other’s questions, change the subject and express themselves in decisive moments of the long night-time conversation in the second act just as unclearly as a first-time reader of the text must feel about it.

Insights about ‘truth’ or the actual intentions of the leading characters – as so often in Wagner – are found only in the music. At the time he wrote Tristan und Isolde (with the exception of his early works and the romantic operas Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, the scores of Rheingold and Walküre were finished; Siegfried existed as sketches through the end of the second act), Wagner had perfected his leitmotif technique to such a virtuosic art that he sometimes not only provides contradiction or commentary – musically, of course – underneath the sung word, but the feelings of the other as well.

When Bertrand de Billy, the conductor of this recording, traveled to Berlin after learning the Tristan score in order to ask for advice on it from Daniel Barenboim, possibly the most experienced “Tristan”-interpreter of our time, Barenboim started off with the words, “You will see that for a musician, life is divided between the periods before and after Tristan.” Tristan as a life’s work. De Billy, who then directed the work for the first time at the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona, still finds it a stroke of luck that he was able to realize his first production of this complex work with the most experienced Wagner singers of our time, especially with one of the most fascinating Isoldes in recent Wagner history. Deborah Polaski, who sang her first Isolde in 1983, is the protagonist of this recording and was with de Billy in Barcelona. Even today, an unbelievable 25 years later, she is one of the leading interpreters of this exceptionally difficult and longest soprano role in the dramatic repertoire.

Her partner in these excerpts from Tristan und Isolde has yet to sing the role on stage. In 1983, Johan Botha was just 17 years old. He had studied voice for several years by that time, however, and sang his first role on European opera stages in 1990 as Gustavo in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. It was already apparent at the beginning of his career that his voice was predestined for the great dramatic roles in opera literature and that his technical possibilities had hardly any match. But Botha withstood the most tempting offers and insisted on building his repertoire slowly and systematically – with a balance between Italian and German roles. His enormous range – from the deep baritone regions until over high C, enables him to now sing Lohengrin and Radames, Stolzing and Don Carlo, Erik and Calaf, Parsifal and Otello, the Kaiser (in Frau ohne Schatten) as well as Cavaradossi, Turridu or Canio and Apollo. He has already announced that he would sing Siegmund and Tannhäuser, and although Siegfried – at least until now – has never been in discussion, Tristan is one of his declared goals for the future. This recording gives us a foretaste of what we can expect to see brought to completion on the stage some years from now. In the selected scenes – all encounters between Tristan and Isolde – he sings nearly the entire role from the first and second acts. This CD and previously released excerpts (OehmsClassics OC 602) present almost the entire role of Isolde with Deborah Polaski, who contributes all of her stage experience under the most significant conductors and directors of our time to these recordings.

Just as the first CD was conceived with a unified theme, here, too, we have purposefully chosen the scenes so as to introduce – as previously mentioned – all encounters of Tristan and Isolde in the opera.

In the first act, we hear the confrontation of the two forced by Isolde, which culminates with the love potion and thus the confession of mutual love. This is followed by the long duet in the second act – at forty minutes unique in the opera literature – which abruptly ends with the discovery of the lovers by Marke and Melot. Finally, there is Tristan’s demand on Isolde that she follow him to the land where “the sun’s light never shines”, her answer, and finally, the fateful wounding of the hero through Melot’s sword at the end of the second act.

A true “encounter” of the pair in the third act – at least while Tristan is still alive – does not take place.

Michael Lewin
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler


Deborah Polaski is without question one of our epoch’s most important interpreters of the dramatic repertoire. She debuted as Senta in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and developed her talent in following years on small and mid-sized German opera stages. In 1988 she debuted in Bayreuth as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring. She performed this role there more often in following years than any other singer in recent Wagner Festival history.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Deborah Polaski has sung on all important opera stages and festivals of the world and worked with the most significant conductors of our time. She was cut out for Richard Strauss’s Elektra just as for Brünnhilde – and of course Isolde – which she sang in new productions in Dresden, Berlin (Barenboim/Kupfer), the Salzburg Easter Festival (Abbado/Grüber), at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Mehta), as well as numerous times at the Vienna State Opera, in Hamburg (S. Young/Berghaus) and also at her celebrated debut in Barcelona under the conductor of this recording, Bertrand de Billy. She has recently added new roles to her Wagner and Strauss repertoire such as the Sexton in Janácek’s Jenufa, Cassandre and Dido in Berlioz’s Trojans and finally, Ariane in Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue.

In addition, Deborah Polaski has an extensive concert repertoire and has appeared frequently in recent years as a Lied interpreter.


Johan Botha was born in 1966 in South Africa and came to Europe in 1990 to debut the same year as Gustavo in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. His international breakthrough followed in 1993 with his debut as Pinkerton in Paris, which took him to all major opera stages of the world within a short time. The Vienna State Opera became his artistic home, but he can be heard every season at the New York Met; he is a regular guest at London’s Covent Garden, the Berlin State Opera or at the Salzburg Festival. He is the rare phenomenon of a tenor who, thanks to his vocal capacity and extraordinary technique, is in demand for both dramatic Italian and German repertoire throughout the world.

Verdi’s Don Carlos, Radames and Otello, Puccini’s Rodolfo, Cavaradossi and Calaf, Leoncavallo’s Canio and Mascagni’s Turridu and Ezio in La Gioconda are his most important Italian roles. In the German repertoire, Botha sings Wagner’s Erik, Lohengrin, Stolzing, Siegmund and Parsifal on top of the Richard Strauss roles Kaiser, Apollo and Bacchus, Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Max in Freischütz and Pedro in d’Albert’s Tiefland.

Johan Botha also has a large concert repertoire and regularly concertizes with nearly all major orchestras and conductors in the world.


Bertrand de Billy was born in 1965 in Paris and first trained to become an orchestral musician, soon appearing as a conductor. He then decided, however, to seriously study conducting and left Paris as first Kapellmeister and associate music director to go to the Dessau Opera. He then accepted the same position in 1996 in Vienna, a city which has remained the central focus of his activities. De Billy’s international career rapidly developed parallel to this as well.

Within only several years he debuted at London’s Covent Garden, the Berlin, Hamburg and Munich State Operas, Brussel’s La Monnaie and the Paris Opéra Bastille.

In 1997, he appeared for the first time at both the Vienna State Opera and the New York Met – and has remained closely linked to both houses ever since. In 1999, Bertrand de Billy was appointed as Music Director of the rebuilt Teatro Liceu in Barcelona and shapes the traditional house with his musical groundwork till the present day. He performed a Mozart cycle during the five years of his stay there, but above all, Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen with a cast of international stars, directed by Harry Kupfer, as well as Tristan und Isolde. Both were a great personal triumph for Bertrand de Billy. In 2004, he left Barcelona to dedicate himself fully to his newest task, one which he had started in 2002: as Music Director of the Vienna RSO, he developed the orchestra into a flexible, highly admired instrument that performs music ranging from Mozart operas to important world premieres of contemporary music with effortless stylistic mastery and an internationally famed sound quality. In addition to its regular series in Vienna concert halls, the RSO also appears as an opera orchestra in the Theater an der Wien, a development that de Billy decisively promoted well before his appointment as guest conductor.

In summer 2002 he debuted with Mozart’s Zauberflöte with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival and since then conducts his own orchestra in programs that reflect the whole range of his abilities.

Bertrand de Billy’s work is documented on numerous CDs (almost all released by OehmsClassics) and DVDs.


The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (Vienna RSO) was founded in 1969 as an offshoot of the Austrian Radio Broadcasting Company’s large orchestra. Since then, it has profiled itself as one of the most diverse orchestras in Austria, focusing primarily on the performance of contemporary music. Under its principle conductors Milan Horvat, Leif Segerstam, Lothar Zagrosek, Pinchas Steinberg and Dennis Russell Davies, however, the Vienna RSO has broadened its repertoire, which now ranges from the pre-classic to the avant-garde. Bertrand de Billy’s tenure as the Vienna RSO’s principle conductor began on September 1, 2002.

In addition to its own concert series in the Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, the orchestra regularly appears at major festivals in and outside of Austria. It maintains especially close ties to the Salzburg Festival. The ensemble’s extensive tours have taken it to the USA, South America, Asia and many European countries. The Vienna RSO has worked with such guest artists as Leonard Bernstein, Ernest Bour, Andrew Davis, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Gielen, Hans Werner Henze, Ernst Krenek, Bruno Maderna, Krzysztof Penderecki, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Hans Swarowsky and Jeffrey Tate. Renowned guest conductors such as Michael Gielen, Peter Eötvös, Michel Plasson, Martyn Brabbins or Wayne Marshall, as well as representatives of the younger generation of conductors such as Tugan Sokhiev, Kirill Petrenko und Gabriel Feltz stood on the podium during the 2006/2007 season.

The Vienna RSO has also established itself as an opera orchestra at Vienna’s KlangBogen Festival, with productions that include Massenet’s Werther, Menotti’s Goya, Mozart’s Idomeneo or Beethoven’s Fidelio. Beginning in 2007, the Vienna RSO performs at least three opera productions annually in the Theater an der Wien.

The Vienna RSO’s extensive recordings for the ORF and its many CD productions include works of all genres, including many premieres of pieces by modern and contemporary classical Austrian composers.

The Vienna RSO’s philosophy is also to provide a forum for talented young musicians of the coming generation. Examples of such projects include the ensemble’s performances with university and conservatory conducting students at their final exam concerts, the “Gradus ad Parnassum” competition, rehearsals for children and the “Classical Seduction” series of concerts in the RadioKulturhaus, in which children and youth learn about exemplary works from music history through performances and explanations. With the broadcast of this series as well as its concert programs, the ORF orchestra makes a major contribution to the program, which is complemented in “Ö1” (Austrian radio broadcasting company) with portraits of composers and interviews with musicians.

More, including samples, at OehmsClassics official website

Find a review (one I don't think I would agree with so far, but it is early days) here: