In Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde the main protagonists take a love potion, which has various side effects and possibly causes Isolde's death.
Tristan is taking Isolde to his uncle King Marke to be his wife. He is in love with Isolde and she knows this. She also loves Tristan though all she wants to do is hate him for invading her homeland, murdering the man she was fated to marry, and then dragging her off on a ship to be married off to someone else. She had healed Tristan during the invasion and had her in his power, but the moment he opened his eyes and pleaded to her for his life, she fell in love with him. She now hates the fact that he would not make her his own but would simply give her away. She decides to kill them both through a poison and begs her friend Brangäne to concoct one for them.
She confronts Tristan and they drink the potion – but instead of a poison, it is a love potion. They reveal their true feelings for one another.
In the second act, the two lovers meet in the night while the King and his men go off hunting. But at the height of their passion, the King and his men barge in thanks to being revealed by Tristan’s “friend” Melot, who also desires Isolde. The King expresses his disappointment and Melot winds up stabbing Tristan.
Now on an island, Tristan is dying with his friend Kurwenal watching over him. Tristan suffers for his Isolde who eventually arrives too late. King Marke arrives to unite the lovers but finds Isolde transcend to another dimension to be reunited with Tristan.
"Tristan and Isolde"
Opera in 3 acts
Sung in German
About 3 hours 45 min + intervals
Isolde, promised to King Marke in marriage, and her handmaid, Brangäne, are quartered aboard Tristan's ship being transported to the king's lands in Cornwall. The opera opens with the voice of a young sailor singing of a "wild Irish maid", ("Westwärts schweift der Blick") which Isolde construes to be a mocking reference to herself. In a furious outburst, she wishes the seas to rise up and sink the ship, killing herself and all on board ("Erwache mir wieder, kühne Gewalt"). Her scorn and rage are directed particularly at Tristan, the knight responsible for taking her to Marke, and Isolde sends Brangäne to command Tristan to appear before her ("Befehlen liess' dem Eigenholde"). Tristan, however, refuses Brangäne's request, claiming that his place is at the helm. His henchman, Kurwenal, answers more brusquely, saying that Isolde is in no position to command Tristan and reminds Brangäne that Isolde's previous fiancé, Morold, was killed by Tristan ("Herr Morold zog zu Meere her").
Brangäne returns to Isolde to relate these events, and Isolde, in what is termed the "narrative and curse", sadly tells her of how, following the death of Morold, she happened upon a stranger who called himself Tantris. Tantris was found mortally wounded in a barge ("von einem Kahn, der klein und arm") and Isolde used her healing powers to restore him to health. She discovered during Tantris' recovery, however, that he was actually Tristan, the murderer of her fiancé. Isolde attempted to kill the man with his own sword as he lay helpless before her. However, Tristan looked not at the sword that would kill him or the hand that wielded the sword, but into her eyes ("Er sah' mir in die Augen"). His action pierced her heart and she was unable to slay him. Tristan was allowed to leave with the promise never to come back, but he later returned with the intention of marrying Isolde to his uncle, King Marke. Isolde, furious at Tristan's betrayal, insists that he drink atonement to her, and from her medicine chest produces a vial to make the drink. Brangäne is shocked to see that it is a lethal poison.
Kurwenal appears in the women's quarters ("Auf auf! Ihr Frauen!") and announces that the voyage is coming to an end. Isolde warns Kurwenal that she will not appear before the King if Tristan does not come before her as she had previously ordered and drink atonement to her. When Tristan arrives, Isolde reproaches him about his conduct and tells him that he owes her his life and how his actions have undermined her honour, since she blessed Morold's weapons before battle and therefore she swore revenge. Tristan first offers his sword but Isolde refuses; they must drink atonement. Brangäne brings in the potion that will seal their pardon; Tristan knows that it may kill him, since he knows Isolde's magic powers ("Wohl kenn' ich Irland's Königin"). The journey almost at its end, Tristan drinks and Isolde takes half the potion for herself. The potion seems to work but it does not bring death but relentless love ("Tristan!" "Isolde!"). Kurwenal, who announces the imminent arrival on board of King Marke, interrupts their rapture. Isolde asks Brangäne which potion she prepared and Brangäne replies, as the sailors hail the arrival of King Marke, that it was not poison, but rather a love potion.
King Marke leads a hunting party out into the night, leaving Isolde and Brangäne alone in the castle, who both stand beside a burning brazier. Isolde, listening to the hunting horns, believes several times that the hunting party is far enough away to warrant the extinguishing of the brazier – the prearranged signal for Tristan to join her ("Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold"). Brangäne warns Isolde that Melot, one of King Marke's knights, has seen the amorous looks exchanged between Tristan and Isolde and suspects their passion ("Ein Einz'ger war's, ich achtet' es wohl"). Isolde, however, believes Melot to be Tristan's most loyal friend, and, in a frenzy of desire, extinguishes the flames. Brangäne retires to the ramparts to keep watch as Tristan arrives.
The lovers, at last alone and freed from the constraints of courtly life, declare their passion for each other. Tristan decries the realm of daylight which is false, unreal, and keeps them apart. It is only in night, he claims, that they can truly be together and only in the long night of death can they be eternally united ("O sink' hernieder, Nacht der Liebe"). During their long tryst, Brangäne calls a warning several times that the night is ending ("Einsam wachend in der Nacht"), but her cries fall upon deaf ears. The day breaks in on the lovers as Melot leads King Marke and his men to find Tristan and Isolde in each other's arms. Marke is heartbroken, not only because of his nephew's betrayal but also because Melot chose to betray his friend Tristan to Marke and because of Isolde's betrayal as well ("Mir – dies? Dies, Tristan – mir?").
When questioned, Tristan says he cannot answer to the King the reason of his betrayal since he would not understand. He turns to Isolde, who agrees to follow him again into the realm of night. Tristan announces that Melot has fallen in love with Isolde too. Melot and Tristan fight, but, at the crucial moment, Tristan throws his sword aside and allows Melot to severely wound him.
Kurwenal has brought Tristan home to his castle at Kareol in Brittany. A shepherd pipes a mournful tune and asks if Tristan is awake. Kurwenal replies that only Isolde's arrival can save Tristan, and the shepherd offers to keep watch and claims that he will pipe a joyful tune to mark the arrival of any ship. Tristan awakes ("Die alte Weise – was weckt sie mich?") and laments his fate – to be, once again, in the false realm of daylight, once more driven by unceasing unquenchable yearning ("Wo ich erwacht' weilt ich nicht"). Tristan's sorrow ends when Kurwenal tells him that Isolde is on her way. Tristan, overjoyed, asks if her ship is in sight, but only a sorrowful tune from the shepherd's pipe is heard.
Tristan relapses and recalls that the shepherd's mournful tune is the same as was played when he was told of the deaths of his father and mother ("Muss ich dich so versteh'n, du alte, ernst Weise"). He rails once again against his desires and against the fateful love potion ("verflucht sei, furchtbarer Trank!") until, exhausted, he collapses in delirium. After his collapse, the shepherd is heard piping the arrival of Isolde's ship, and, as Kurwenal rushes to meet her, Tristan tears the bandages from his wounds in his excitement ("Hahei! Mein Blut, lustig nun fliesse!"). As Isolde arrives at his side, Tristan dies with her name on his lips.
Isolde collapses beside her deceased lover just as the appearance of another ship is announced. Kurwenal spies Melot, Marke and Brangäne arriving ("Tod und Hölle! Alles zur Hand!"). He believes they have come to kill Tristan and, in an attempt to avenge him, furiously attacks Melot. Marke tries to stop the fight to no avail. Both Melot and Kurwenal are killed in the fight. Marke and Brangäne finally reach Tristan and Isolde. Marke, grieving over the body of his "truest friend" ("Tot denn alles!"), explains that Brangäne revealed the secret of the love potion and that he had come not to part the lovers, but to unite them ("Warum Isolde, warum mir das?"). Isolde appears to wake at this and in a final aria describing her vision of Tristan risen again (the "Liebestod", "love death"), dies ("Mild und leise wie er lächelt").
Tristan – Tenor (Helden/dramatic)
A Breton nobleman, adopted heir of Marke
Isolde – Soprano (dramatic)
An Irish princess betrothed to Marke
Brangäne – Soprano/Mezzo-soprano (dramatic)
Kurwenal – Baritone (dramatic)
Marke – Bass (dramatic basso profondo)
King of Cornwall
Melot – Tenor/Baritone
A courtier, Tristan's friend
A shepherd – Tenor
A steersman – Baritone
A young sailor - Tenor
Place of birth: Leipzig, Germany
Place of death: Venice, Italy
Richard Wagner was a 19th century German composer, theatre director, conductor and librettist. His writing period spans over more than 50 years. He is most known for his operas, what he called, "music dramas". Particularly in his later operas he made use of "Leitmotifs" (leading motifs), musical phrases connected to a role character, a place or an idea. He also describes the music dramas as "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total work of art). This idea revolutionised opera. By combining poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts the story could unfold with the music supporting the drama.
Wagner's hostile writings expressing antisemitic views have been widely commented. Hitler was an admirer of his music and there are continuous debates about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced Nazi thinking.
Wagner married Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer in 1836. Their tumultuous marriage would last until Minna's death in 1866, although their relationship ended much earlier. In 1852 Wagner became infatuated with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck. He would set five of her verses to music, the Wesendonck Lieder. In 1863 Wagner met Cosima von Bülow, the wife of Hans von Bülow and daughter of Franz Liszt. They had an affair that would lead to a marriage that would last until Wagner's death. They married in 1870 and had three children.
Wagner's legacy to the world of opera is of considerable scope, although controversial.
"Imagination creates reality."
Wagner built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, specifically to house his own works during the annual festival, the Bayreuth Festival. Today audiences travel from all over the world to visit the summer festival. The orchestra pit is designed so that it doesn't draw any attention from the stage, with the orchestra members hidden under the stage, invisible to the audience.
Most prominent operas
Der fliegende Holländer 1843
Tristan und Isolde 1865
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 1868
Das Rheingold 1869
Die Walküre 1870
The libretto is largely based on the 12th century romance Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.
Wagner wrote the libretto for all of his operas and referred to the texts as "poems".
3d1, 2+1, 2+1, 3 - 4, 3, 3, 1
timp, perc, harp, strings
Tristan und Isolde premiered at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich in 1865 with Hans von Bülow conducting.
Today it is one of the top 50 most performed operas worldwide.
Duet - O sink hernieder "Love Duet" (Tristan, Isolde)
Aria – Mild und leise "Liebestod" (Isolde)