Tristan and Isolde, Opera by R. Wagner
For the operas that comprise The Ring, Wagner turned to Norse mythology; in the case of Tristan und Isolde, it was Celtic legend that provided him with his inspiration. Tristan, a Cornish nobleman, captures an Irish princess, Isolde, and intends to offer her as tribute to Marke, his king. Tristan, who has killed the princess’ fiancé, is initially despised by Isolde, but her attempt to exact revenge is foiled when her maid, Brangäne, substitutes a love potion for the poison Isolde had intended both of them to drink to punish Tristan and end her own misery.
Death continues to cast its shadow over the opera’s narrative with Tristan, now besotted with Isolde, relentlessly pursued by Marke along with his meddling courtier, Melot, as the plot moves to its sad, dramatic finale. First performed in Munich at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater on 10 June 1865, Tristan und Isolde had to endure its own real-life tragedy when the first actor to play Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died less than two months after the premiere.
The opera remains one of the most discussed works in the history of music because of the way in which Wagner uses harmonic suspension. The so-called ‘Tristan Chord’, an augmented fourth that is first heard just a couple of bars into the entire piece, was not unusual in itself; it is the fact that Wagner does not resolve it to its tonal centre until the end of the work that is utterly extraordinary. The result is a masterpiece that is eerily atmospheric throughout; a metaphor for a sense of longing that it seems will never reach its point of fulfilment until the opera’s last few notes do finally release us from its grip.
Now Tristan und Isolde, a nineteenth-century opera that provides a foretaste of the dissonance embraced by composers of the twentieth century, looks set to fascinate audiences once again at the Vienna State Opera.