Major Operas | Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde, written between 1856 and 1859 and first produced at the Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich on 10 June 1865, broke the established mould of opera and took it to the threshold of ‘modern’ music. Tristan was based on an Arthurian legend, and featured a regular theme in Wagner’s operas – the plight of lovers doomed to a cruel, inescapable fate.

In Tristan, Wagner illustrated the themes of love and death with chromatics, a term describing notes that did not belong to the diatonic scale: this scale comprised only those notes in a given key. Chromatics not only gave a feeling of urgency to the music, they also broke up the tonality which indicated where the music was going next. This did away with the predictability so evident, for instance, in the operas of Donizetti. Wagner began Tristan as he meant to go on: the prelude was a break with musical tradition, so much so that the music could not be pinned down to any definite key. The opera has been described as ‘an overwhelming experience’.

Composed: 1857–59
Premiered: 1865, Munich
Libretto by the composer

Act I

On a ship bound from Ireland, Isolde is escorted by Tristan, a knight, to marry his uncle, King Marke of Cornwall. Furious at Tristan’s lack of consideration for her feelings, Isolde wishes that she had her mother’s magic powers, in order to sink the ship. She sends her companion Brangäne to summon Tristan. Brangäne approaches him but he explains that he must steer the ship. His companion Kurwenal sings an insulting song about Tristan’s killing of Morold, Isolde’s betrothed. Isolde bitterly recalls how the longing in Tristan’s eyes forced her to nurse him back to health even after she discovered that he killed Morold. She is furious that he is repaying this kindness by delivering her to his uncle as a bride, and curses Tristan, hoping to also die herself. Brangäne assures her that Tristan is only doing his duty, and reminds her of the love potion her mother has provided for her wedding night. Isolde requests instead the elixir of death.

Land is sighted, but Isolde refuses to leave the ship until Tristan begs forgiveness. He arrives at her quarters and offers her a sword with which to kill him, but Isolde replies that she cannot kill her future husband’s nephew. She offers him a drink of friendship; Tristan realises that she means to poison him. They drink the potion, but instead of dying they find themselves falling in love; Brangäne admits she administered the love potion instead of the poison.

Act II

As Marke leaves with his hunt, Isolde awaits Tristan. Brangäne warns her to be wary of spies, especially Melot, who has been keeping a close eye on Tristan. Isolde declares Melot to be a friend. Brangäne regrets bringing the couple together, but Isolde insists that Love herself was responsible. She puts out the torch, signalling to Tristan that it...

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