Opera in my Pyjamas: Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’

Wagner TandI posterI’ll be honest: I did not enjoy Tristan and Isolde. I tried. I really, really did. But I just didn’t like it. By the time it finally reached its conclusion, after four hours which felt like much, much longer, all I could think was ‘for pity’s sake, this would have been over a lot sooner if Brangane had just let you drink the effing poison to begin with.’

Having said that, the little I’ve read about Wagner and his operas, including Tristan and Isolde, has been more than enough to instil in me an appreciation of his work and what he was trying to accomplish. This is Art, with a capital ‘A’. Wagner’s vision was of a completely different direction for the operatic form, one in which the music would weave seamlessly through the action depicting thoughts, moods, feelings and the like through the use of ‘leitmotifs’: effectively short musical phrases which, through repetition, would come to be associated with the particular action, person, or feeling being depicted on-stage. This weaving-through also extended to the traditional arias, duets, and ensemble singing; it’s difficult to pinpoint in Tristan and Isolde where one ‘song’ ends and another begins because there aren’t really any distinct ‘songs’ to begin with, just a continuous, unfolding melody.

All of this was coupled with a desire for stage sets and special effects previously undreamed-of, and this, plus the desire for a huge orchestra which would nonetheless be hidden from the audience, led to Wagner’s conception of his Festspielhaus, or festival theatre, at Bayreuth in Germany. A colossal undertaking and prohibitively expensive, it was built over four years between 1872 and 1876, and was the setting for the premiere of Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle, which is something like sixteen hours long, and from which I pray God will preserve me.

Wagner TandI lovers
René Kollo as Tristan and Johanna Meier as Isolde in the second act’s love duet.

The fact that the Ring Cycle is sixteen hours long is what led me to turn my attention to Tristan and Isolde, which is positively brief by comparison. The first act comprises a single scene: Princess Isolde of Ireland is aboardship being taken to England to marry King Mark. At the helm is Mark’s nephew and heir, Tristan, who previously slew Isolde’s fiancé in battle, during which he was wounded and came to Ireland incognito to seek Isolde’s magical healing powers. Though she saw through his disguise, she healed him anyway in the hope of working greater vengeance against him later, and he went home and raved to his uncle about her beauty and healing power, hence the marriage proposal. So Isolde is understandably pissed off, and spends about an hour venting to her maid Brangane about it, culminating with the decision to use the poison her mother gave her to kill both Tristan and herself.

Isolde commands Brangane to prepare a chalice while she herself works on Tristan, convincing him that drinking with her is an act of atonement. He’s suspicious, but eventually complies. Except that Brangane, who apparently decided that she didn’t want to be an accessory to murder, switched the poison for a love potion, and the first act ends with our two heroes falling desperately, helplessly, hopelessly and, under the circumstances, dangerously in love.

In the second act, Isolde waits for Tristan under a tree. When he finally shows they get so wrapped up in each other that they’re caught the next morning. Melot, a courtier who has grown suspicious, fights first Tristan’s retainer Kurwenal and then Tristan himself, leaving the latter wounded. King Mark, unhappy at his bride’s unfaithfulness and his nephew’s betrayal, nonetheless pulls a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ which moves a penitent (and bleeding) Tristan to choose exile – with the promise that Isolde will follow him.

Wagner TandI dead
Could have saved a lot of time by going with the poison. Just saying.

The final scene shows Tristan slowly dying in exile but holding on desperately in the hope that Isolde will come to him. Finally she does, and Tristan is so overjoyed that he forgets his wounds in order to embrace her. Which turns out to be a really bad idea, as it only aggravates his mortal wound. At this point King Mark turns up. Brangane has told all, and he’s come to give the lovers his blessing. But of course, it’s far too late. Tristan dies of his wounds and Isolde, in true tragic fashion, dies of a broken heart alongside him.

It’s not that it’s a bad opera. I just found it incredibly dull. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would eagerly explain to me that I just don’t understand (true) or appreciate (also true) what Wagner was doing, and I shouldn’t be so close-minded. Such is life, and my life is short enough that I think it’s highly likely that I’ll be giving Wagner a miss from now on.

Do you love Wagner? Tell me what you love about his operas: I may not want to watch them, but I’d love to hear about why you do.


2 thoughts on “Opera in my Pyjamas: Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’

  1. I felt compelled to find out about the works of Wagner after Jewish philosophers revealed that it was okay to listen them again (many Jewish musicians in concentration camps were forced to play his music). I had read about legend of Tristan and Isolde, so watched a Met Opera version on Sky Arts. Yes it was difficult to get through and I kept falling asleep and had to keep rewinding. Your explanation about it being more of a mood thing explains it better and why his music tends to be used as background music. I must admit I found the sets and costumes far more fascinating. The colours that the Met used influenced me to change my wardrobe: medieval celtic colours of cinnabar, indigo, yellow ochre etc. My attention got drawn to them. Though since then just listening to the opera’s Prelude and Liebestod, one realises he just needed some serious editing.
    I think I’ll stick to his wonderful “Ride of the Valkyrie” and wedding marches.

    Liked by 1 person

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