Tristan und Isolde
Opera in three acts (1865)
Richard Wagner based on the verse »Tristan« by Gottfried von Strassburg
Inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Richard Wagner adapted this medieval epic in the 1850s and created a musical score that put far more emphasis on the protagonists’ overwhelming emotions and streams of consciousness than any other opera before. By concentrating to the full on the innermost lives of the characters, who barely perform any actions, his almost symphonic-sounding music is able to unfold in a great, highly autonomous way. By means of pronounced chromaticism and advanced harmony, as well as by strict renunciation of formal caesura, Wagner creates an extremely erotic score, an »infinite melody« of ardent tensions. Like the constantly growing, all-consuming longing of the two lead roles, it urgently moves to an increasingly painful conclusion (or salvation), neither of which are actually granted.
by Dmitri Tcherniakov
The Prior Story
Tristan, a close confidant of Cornwall’s King Marke, kills Morold in battle, a representative of Ireland, Cornwall’s enemy. Morold’s head is sent scornfully to the fiancée of the killed man, the Irish Princess Isolde.
But Tristan was also gravely wounded in the battle. Under the name of Tantris, he travels to Ireland to be treated by Isolde, famed for her healing powers. Isolde recognizes the true identity of the wounded patient, for the splinter she took from the skull of her betrothed Morold fits precisely into a nick on Tristan’s sword. She wants to avenge Morold’s death, but when she looks Tristan in the eye, her hate turns into love. Tristan returns to Cornwall, healed.
After some time, he surprisingly returns to Ireland to abduct Isolde as the wife for his king Marke.
Tristan is bringing Isolde by boat to Cornwall to be King Marke’s bride. He avoids all contact with her. Isolde feels ignominiously betrayed by Tristan and asks her confidant Brangäne to ask Tristan for a meeting. Tristan evades. His trusting friend Kurwenal gives an insulting reply: a man like Tristan has nothing to say to the woman he is bringing as a trophy wife to his king.
Isolde admits to Brangäne that Tristan is the same Tantris who once killed her fiancé Morold and against whom she almost avenged herself, but that in a moment of pity she saved his life and healed his life-threatening wound. He swore faithfulness to her, but now the ingrate has kidnapped her for his king, the old Marke. Isolde despairs in the face of the prospect of living as the wife of another man close to her true love. Brangäne tries to comfort Isolde, and reminds her of the magic potion that Isolde’s mother had given her for her journey. But Isolde wants to take poison instead, and has Tristan summoned to imbibe this drink of atonement together with her. Isolde has the message sent to Tristan that she will not meet King Marke on shore, if Tristan refuses to come to her immediately. This time, Tristan appears. Behind Isolde’s vague words about atonement Tristan recognizes her true intention. Isolde demands that he drink the deadly potion with her. After torturous deliberation, Tristan decides to join her.
In expectation of their coming death, Tristan and Isolde admit their true feelings for one another. But the drink that Brangäne has given them was in reality not the deadly potion. The boat now arrives in Cornwall.
Isolde is now King Marke’s wife. She can only meet Tristan rarely and in secret. One evening, Isolde impatiently awaits the arrival of Tristan for a meeting. Brangäne warns Isolde: she has been watched carefully ever since her arrival by Melot, who then reports all he sees to the king. Brangäne begs her to refrain from their rendezvous. She is convinced that it is no coincidence that King Marke has summoned all his close friends together this evening, and that he intends to publically expose Tristan and Isolde and to prove their betrayal. Isolde will not heed Brangäne’s warning to be cautious and gives Tristan the sign they had agreed upon.
Tristan comes to Isolde. But their joyous meeting soon turns into a difficult and torturous dialogue in which both try to declare their guilt, their silence, their betrayal and to justify themselves. This attempt to address frankly all past accusations leads to a new openness between the two. Tristan calls on Isolde to forget all, to sink into the night, into utter bliss, where there are no memories, no conflicts, no longings.
He speaks to Isolde about his experience of death, of death as a valuable, sublime experience. Isolde, beguiled by his words, is ready to follow him to the end.
Neither of them heeds Brangäne’s warning of imminent danger, and only the call of Kurwenal interrupts their dialogue.
King Marke and his confidants appear. Melot accuses Tristan of betrayal. Aggrieved, Marke publicly accuses Tristan of betraying honor, fidelity, and valor. He calls Tristan ungrateful and says that he has hurt him dearly.
Fallen into disgrace, Tristan asks Isolde if she is ready to follow him wherever he goes. She affirms.
Deeply disappointed, Melot attacks Tristan.
Kurwenal brings Tristan home to his home Kareol in Brittany, in the hope he could heal and once again become the strong, magnificent Tristan of past days. But the return to the place that Tristan had left so long ago does not heal Tristan of the troubles that haunt him, but raises new ones. Tristan awaits a ship that will bring Isolde. It becomes painfully clear to him how much he misses Isolde and that he cannot live or die without her. But the ship does not arrive, and Isolde does not come.
The sound of an old melody brings back old nightmares: Tristan’s childhood and the loss of his parents. The fear of being alone has accompanied him ever since then, a fear of loss and commitment has defined his entire life. And here in Kareol, Tristan realizes that he feels abandoned by all and recognizes his love for Isolde as a torturous dependency. He blames the potion they took together for his state, he curses the potion, and curses the love from which he can no longer free himself. Although he no longer believes Isolde will arrive, he continues to dream of her. When the boat with Isolde actually arrives, Tristan dies: Isolde has come too late.
After Isolde, Marke and his entourage arrive, with Brangäne and Melot in tow. Kurwenal, who blames them all for Tristan’s death, begins an unequal struggle against them. Brangäne, who convinced King Marke on the trip to Kareol, explains to Isolde that the King has forgiven the lovers and has come to approve of their bond. Tristan is dead, and Isolde is now oblivious to what is going on around her.