Tristan und Isolde
Composed: 1856-9 Premiered: 12 March 1859, Prague Sailing from Ireland to Cornwall, where Isolde is to marry King Marke, Tristan, who killed her previous fiancé, is persuaded to drink the elixir of death in atonement. Isolde drinks it too, wanting an end to her sorry life. This, though, is not the elixir of death but the elixir of love, Isolde’s maid Brangäne having switched the two bottles. Cue one of opera’s most famous love stories which ends with Tristan being struck by one of Marke’s men. Mortally wounded, Tristan goes to Brittany where Isolde arrives as he breathes his last.
During his exile, Wagner was provided with a house to rent by the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck with whose wife, Mathilde, he fell passionately in love. It was almost certainly an unconsummated relationship, and it gave rise to Wagner’s need, as he wrote to Liszt, to write a drama in which passion should be sated from beginning to end.
But in fact Tristan is about something deeper than that: it is about love as unlimited Desire, which always yearns for something more than it can possibly have. Hence the famous chromaticism of Tristan, the failure of its harmonies ever to resolve until the work’s very end (see p41). Wagner simultaneously glorifies love in a scandalously abandoned way, in the duet which constitutes the major part of Act II, and also shows that it is a total impossibility. The love which Tristan and Isolde explore and celebrate in Act II is surrounded, in Act I, by the torments of unrequited love suffered by Isolde, and up to a point by Tristan; and in Act III, by far the most powerful of the acts, by Tristan, wounded and delirious, tearing himself apart in agonies of analysis, realising that no one but he is responsible for his pain. As Wagner – who by now had moved to Venice, alone after his wife Minna had learnt of his liaisons – wrote to Mathilde while composing Act III ‘This Act is turning into something terrible! It will drive people mad; only mediocre performances can save me!’
Wagner is scrupulous in putting the case for the other side. Tristan and Isolde are interrupted at the very height of their duet, Isolde’s betrothed King Marke is shown their deceit and, as representative of the world of chivalry, decency and so on, he expresses his bewilderment that two people he trusted completely should betray him. How did it come about, he asks, and the orchestra answers with the motif of Desire, something he can never understand.
And when, in Act III, Tristan collapses, his squire Kurwenal laments that ‘Here he lies, the great man, in thrall to the world’s most wonderful delusion [Love]’. And both lovers die in a state of delusion, Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’, the most famous part of the opera, being sublime wish fulfilment. The potent myth that is romantic love is both celebrated and revealed in all its sublime impossibility.
• Read more: The best productions of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde