Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Event: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
Date: October 8, 2016, 12:00 pm
Run Time: 4 hours 47 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Tristan und Isoldeper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Tristan und Isoldeper student • $11.00 online


Act I

A warship on the sea. On board are Isolde and her companion, Brangäne. Isolde has been captured in Ireland and is now being escorted by Tristan to Cornwall, whose ruler (and Tristan’s foster-father), Marke, she is to marry. Mortified to be a captive, Isolde does not want the ship to reach its destination. She is unable to understand why Tristan is delivering her to Marke instead of marrying her himself. She calls his heroism and nobility into question and accuses him of cowardice. She then sends Brangäne to arrange a meeting with Tristan. Intent on performing his duties as an officer, Tristan declines, and his aide, Kurwenal, brusquely dismisses Brangäne and alludes to the death of Morold. In confidence, Isolde tells Brangäne how she had saved Tristan’s life and treated his wounds when he was washed up on the shores of Ireland after having killed her betrothed, Morold. Assuming the name of Tantris, Tristan surrendered himself to Isolde’s care, and she fell in love with him, even though she eventually realized that he had slain Morold. Humiliated at being rebuffed, Isolde craves revenge. She asks Brangäne to prepare poison that she intends to give Tristan in a drink of atonement. The warship approaches its destination. Isolde finally manages to speak to Tristan. They have a bitter face-to-face in which she brings up all his misdeeds. Tristan remains impassive and keeps his emotions in check. As the ship approaches the shore where Marke awaits his bride-to-be, Tristan drinks the potion Isolde offers him, fully aware that it is poisoned. Isolde does likewise. But the flasks have been switched: Brangäne has given them a love potion instead. As the ship sails into the harbor, Tristan and Isolde fall under its spell and confess their love for each other. Isolde’s last words before being brought before Marke are, “Must I live?”

Act II

Marke is away. Aboard the empty ship, Isolde is eagerly looking forward to a secret rendezvous with Tristan, who is to appear when the lights go out. Brangäne is apprehensive and trying to dissuade Isolde from seeing her lover, but Isolde disregards her warnings. At the appointed signal, Tristan arrives. After the initial rapture of their reunion, they begin a long conversation. Tristan expresses his belief that love cannot find true fulfillment in the daylight—this can only happen at night: “We have dedicated ourselves to the night!” Brangäne, standing on the lookout, warns them that day is about to break. Faced with the inevitability of their parting, the lovers resolve to die: “Let day give way before death!” They are discovered by Melot, who has brought Marke along in order to expose Isolde’s infidelity. Devastated by Tristan’s disloyalty, Marke accuses him of having sullied his honor. Tristan pays no heed to Marke’s reproaches and implores Isolde to set off into the night with him. She agrees. Tristan stabs himself.


Tristan is lying in a coma with Kurwenal watching over him. The sound of a familiar old tune brings him out of his slumber. Bewildered by his return to the waking world, Tristan speaks of his experiences while unconscious: “I was where I had been before I was, and where I am destined to go, in the wide realm of night.” As his life gradually slips away, Tristan embarks upon an inward journey. He recalls traumatic events, including the death of his parents, whom he never knew, which have caused him to lose faith in the rituals of day and in the possibility of fulfillment in the light of day. Kurwenal tells Tristan that he has summoned Isolde to look after him once more. Delirious, Tristan sees Isolde running toward him with a promise of love and redemption. When Isolde’s ship appears on the horizon, he tears off his bandages and rushes towards her. He dies in her arms. Isolde’s story does not end with Tristan’s death. She is left alone in the care of Marke and Brangäne. Racked with guilt, Marke tries, along with Brangäne, to draw Isolde back to the realm of day and life, but she expires in a rapture of ecstatic love. —Piotr Gruszczyński (Reprinted courtesy of the Baden-Baden Festival Hall)

Notes by Zeke Hecker

As I have never in life felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of all my dreams, in which, from beginning to end, that love shall be thoroughly satiated.
(Richard Wagner, letter to Franz Liszt)

Child, this “Tristan” is turning into something terrifying. That last act! I’m afraid the opera will be forbidden, unless the whole thing is turned to parody by a bad production. Only mediocre performances can save me. Good ones are bound to drive people mad.
(Richard Wagner, letter to Mathilde Wesendonck)

Wagner was right. Tristan and Isolde did drive people mad. At early performances, people fainted, had fits, experienced erotic ecstasy. This yearning, seething, restless score changed the course of Western music. Its chromaticism teeters on the edge of tonality, and sometimes plunges over it. Nothing like it had been heard before.

Facing an artistic impasse, Wagner had interrupted work two-thirds through his monumental Ring Cycle. He was in political exile in Switzerland, and in love with his host’s wife, Mathilde Wesendonck. His own wife Minna had remained in Dresden. The unconsummated affair with Mathilde inspired the new project. He originally intended it to be compact and practical to perform, in contrast to the Ring. It wasn’t. The Vienna Court Opera abandoned a planned premiere after more than 60 rehearsals. The eventual premiere came in Munich in 1865. The two leads, Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, were husband and wife. Ludwig died suddenly after four performances, probably from the strain of singing his punishing part, and Malvina never sang again.

The “Handlung” (“action” – Wagner did not call this an opera) is based on a courtly romance by the medieval writer Gottfried von Strassburg, based in turn on Celtic legend. As usual, Wagner adapted the source freely to suit his purposes. The story is streamlined to focus on the central situation and a handful of characters. The love potion is what Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” an excuse for a plot. Even the lovers know this; it merely gives them permission to do what they will do anyway.

Tristan and Isolde is no typical love story. Wagner was influenced by the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, who was himself influenced by Buddhism. Human life is driven by constant desire, unquenchable and painful; our only escape is through death to the state of Nirvana. This is most clearly expressed in Tristan’s long, agonized Act III soliloquy. The familiar designation for Isolde’s final “Love-Death” is not Wagner’s. His term was “transfiguration.” We have passed beyond love.