Based on a medieval love story and premiered in , Tristan tells the story of a Cornish knight bringing home a captured Irish princess to his king.
The only problem is that Sir Tristan and Princess Isolde have fallen in love — an urge they resist until they both accidentally drink a magic potion. This final Act!!!! It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I travelled to the Midlands on Saturday to hear a semi-staged production by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. Fortunately I was not alone: Hannah Ivison, an opera fan from near Coventry, took up my offer of a press ticket. Tristan starts with one of the most famous chords in music, which slides onto another pregnant chord via a yearning upward phrase.
Musicologists have written reams on the subject and I have no intention of butting in on their turf. All I will say is that to the ordinary listener it has a melancholy unresolved quality that grows increasingly hypnotic. She found a dying Tristan and healed him with her magic potion. Tristan, she realised, was the man who killed him. The opera novice: our new column. The opera novice: Norma by Vincenzo Bellini.
The opera novice: passion for Puccini's Tosca. Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. The most sublime part of Tristan is the love duet from the second act. Sex for them, though, would be an inadequate imitation of the spiritual union their selves crave. Drama needs opposing forces and when two characters are pulling so closely together your attention can drift.
For those who think Wagner is all single-minded bombast the king's moving set piece — beautifully sung by Matthew Best, as Ivan Hewett pointed out in his review — should make them rethink. The singing in general was impressive — in particular Stephen Gould as Tristan — though having the orchestra at the same level as the singers occasionally drowned them out.
Both characters get what they want in dying. Well, I can just about hear it…. The poet and shoemaker Hans Sachs tells the much younger Eva why even though they love each other they cannot marry. We all long for love that defies convention and common sense. Wagner's musical genuis allows us to indulge in this fantasy — but the lovers are too solipsistic to be sympathetic. Tristan himself was so grievously wounded in the encounter that he pleaded to be placed in a boat with all his weapons, and cast adrift on the sea to die. As fate would have it, he was thrown up by the tide on the Irish coast; on that very spot held by his late enemy.
Isolde found him, an unknown wanderer, and nursed him back to convalescence by her vaunted "leechcraft. But as she lifted the sword, her aversion changed to regard and, with a noble chivalry, she allowed Tristan to depart unharmed. Later on, Tristan was sent by his uncle as ambassador to make peace with Ireland, and to demand the hand of Isolde for Mark to seal the bond.
Isolde felt that she had been deceived and betrayed. Tristan, her own beloved, come to woo her for another! Isolde gave her unwilling consent, and Tristan was now bringing over to wed his uncle her whom he himself held dear. It is with the sea-voyage that the stage-action begins. Isolde reclines on a couch in her cabin.
Rich tapestries enclose the scene. An unseen sailor trolls out on the mast-head, singing of his Irish maid. The song seems to Isolde like a covert taunt aimed at herself. Fierce, conflicting thoughts take possession of her when she learns that the voyage is nearly ended; and she bursts out into an excited appeal to the elements to destroys the ship and all in it.
The whole length of the vessel in thus revealed; and Tristan, his arms folded on his breast, his knights and his squire Kurvenal beside him, is observed standing at the helm, looking sadly across the sea. Tristan declines the summons on the pretext that he cannot leave the helm. Isolde is more indignant than ever; for Tristan has already been guilty of apparent coldness and discourtesy in avoiding her during the voyage.
Her impatience increases as she gazes at him in moody meditation. In a long and violent scene she goes over the story of the Morold and Tantris episode, declaring that her love is now changed to hate. Tristan was once hers; if she cannot live with him, she will die, and take Tristan along with her "into the night. The shouts of the sailors are heard as they sing their "Ho, heave ho!
Isolde protests that she will not land unless Tristan comes and pleads forgiveness for his neglect. While the horrified attendant is kneeling to expostulate, "Sir Tristan" is announced. Isolde upbraids him for shunning her.
He pleads etiquette. She reminds him fo that never-to-be-forgotten incident in Ireland when she nursed him back to life. Revenge, she adds, is her debt against him. Tristan offers his sword and bids her take his life. That, she bitterly replies, would never do: it would mortally offend King Mark. Rather let the feud be terminated with a cup of reconciliation. Tristan, fully alive to her meaning, is content thus to end his hopeless passion. Slowly the frames of the unfortunate pair tremble.
They stand entranced, gazing bewilderingly at each other. Love, not death, they discover, is what the cup of reconciliation has brought them. The philter is already working, thought not yet in its full strength. But the boat bearing King Mark, coming to welcome his bride, is drawing near. Tristan and Isolde awake once more to real life. Faltering words of loving wonder, of amazement at the revelation which has come to them, fall from their lips.
It opens with an introduction which leads to a scene in the Castle garden -- the Castle of King Mark. Isolde waits, longing for the daylight to fade when she may meet her lover. She hears their horns curiously sounding in the distance; but her mistress, coming to the top of the steps, wilfully ignores the strain. A lighted torch stands by her door, the pre-arranged signal for Tristan not to approach. Isolde will not listen. Isolde waves her kerchief to Tristan. Isolde seizes it. Tristan rushes in, and once more they clasp each other. In a transport of tingling delight, they cast themselves on a bank of flowers, supremely happy, oblivious of everything; love alone being in the hearts and thoughts and feelings of both.
A passion of that kind is attenuated by the cold light of the common day. The common day is approaching, but Tristan and Isolde are still in oblivious ecstasy. Still the lovers linger on the flowery bank entranced, enshrined in nameless love, given over to themselves. They heed her not.