All who have made a study of opera, and do not regard it merely as a form of amusement, are agreed that the score of Tristan und Isolde is the greatest setting of a love-story for the lyric stage. It is a tale of tragic passion, culminating in death, unfolded in the surge and palpitation of immortal music.
That’s an exaggeration, but an understandable one. Tristan und Isolde is a great opera. The love that it portrays is obsessive and ultimately destructive, seeking and finding its fulfillment in death, but that the opera taps a deep vein of mythic power is hard to deny. The music with which Wagner has furnished the story is desperate, yearning, restless, and darkly beautiful. One doesn’t have to admire his artistic vision to agree that he has realized that vision thoroughly and brilliantly, and in so doing has created something powerful.
The opera is autobiographical to a unique degree in Wagner’s work. While writing it — and, as always, he wrote not just the music but also the text — he was carrying on an affair with a woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, who was married to his friend and benefactor. In his letters he seems to have cast himself in the role of Tristan, and her in the role of Isolde. By the time the opera was finished, the affair had ended, but the passion and turmoil survive in the music.
Tristan und Isolde was the first of Wagner’s operas to be performed after Lohengrin, but he had been busy in the meantime. After completing Lohengrin he had begun work on Der Ring des Nibelungen, and he had mostly completed the first two operas in that cycle before he, needing some money, turned aside to write a “small” opera on the legend of Tristan and Isolde. It may have started small, with just five principal characters, but Wagner’s muse was expansive, and the completed opera is nearly four hours in performance, and is among the most difficult in the repertoire. It demands incredible power and stamina from its small group of singers. Wagner’s compositional methods also developed between Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde. The leitmotif technique plays a much more significant role here than it had previously.
I have chosen one highlight from each of the opera’s three Acts, but before getting to them we must pause to hear the orchestral prelude. It is not only the most famous music from the opera, but is one of the most famous and “important” pieces in all of Western music. Wagner’s use of dissonance, chromaticism, and careful avoidance of a closing cadence anywhere gives the music a disorienting, unsettled feeling expressive of the tormented love that is the opera’s subject. Here is Daniel Barenboim leading the young players of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at last year’s Proms:
In Act I, Tristan is bringing Isolde by ship from Ireland to Cornwall where she will marry Tristan’s uncle, King Mark. She, harboring a secret love for Tristan, is unwilling to marry another, and, also hating him for having killed her fiance (in events which transpired before the opera begins), she decides to kill both him and herself with a poisoned elixir. As the ship approaches Cornwall she offers him the poisoned cup. Her servant, however, has replaced the expected poison with a love potion, and when the couple drinks they find, not death, but an overwhelming passion for one another.
The scene in which they both drink of the cup is magnificent. The voices fall silent for a time, and in the orchestra we hear several of the opera’s most important leitmotifs portraying Tristan, Isolde, fate, and love. Eventually the voices do burst forth again: “Tristan! Isolde!” The deed has been done; this passion will lead them both to destruction.
Here is the scene from a television production, with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen. (Yes, there really was a Wagnerian tenor — and a great one — called “Windgassen”.) Here is the text with English translation; this excerpt begins with Tristan’s line “War Morold dir so wert”, about one-third of the way through the scene. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, pick it up at about 7:00, as Tristan prepares to drink the cup (singing “Tristans Ehre – höchste Treu’!”).
Act II contains one of the longest and most opulent love duets in all of opera. Tristan and Isolde have met under cover of darkness, away from the watchful eyes of King Mark, and they declare their love for one another. The duet goes on for nearly half an hour, and so is far too long to include here in its entirety. Here is the section beginning “O sink hernieder” (text and translation here), sung by Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen at the Metropolitan Opera:
In Act III, Tristan has been fatally wounded after he and Isolde were discovered together. After singing for a long time, he dies, and Isolde takes center-stage to deliver her final oration: the famous Liebestod (Love-death). One pities the soprano who has to stand up at the end of a long night of singing and confront this monumental conclusion. Here it is, sung by Birgit Nilsson in a concert performance. Text and translations here. (Scroll down to the bottom.)
I practiced full Tristan-und-Isolde-immersion this week, hearing or viewing four different performances of the opera. I watched the production from the Metropolitan Opera that I linked above, with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the main roles. Heppner was excellent, but I found Eaglen a little underpowered at times. On CD I listened to the famous 1936 recording with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior. The singing is amazing — many contend that there has never been an Isolde to match Flagstad’s — but the sound recording technology of the time was not able to capture the richness of the orchestral music, and in Wagner the orchestra is at least as important as the voices. I also heard a recent recording with Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme; the sound quality was glorious, and the singing was good, but it didn’t get my blood boiling the way this opera ought to. In the end I returned to my favourite recording: the 1966 Bayreuth performance led by Karl Böhm with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen.