The works of Richard Wagner: Tristan & Isolde

In continuation of a new series exploring the works of Richard Wagner, Lucas Dié next delves into the plot of the three-act opera Tristan and Isolde.

Richard Wagner’s work Tristan and Isolde is the Romeo and Juliet of German opera. Mere mention of the names gives the connotation of unhappy lovers in a secret relationship. There are so many different versions of the story available in print, film and movie that everyone has at least a general idea of the plot, making it one of the ‘easier’ works by Richard Wagner to watch.

Richard Wagner wrote the first act during his exile in Zurich while having a relationship with poetess Mathilde Wesendonck, whose husband was his sponsor and not impressed by the work. Richard Wagner, a guest at the Wesendonks’ property, had to later leave Zurich for Venice where he wrote the second act. Constrained to leave Venice, too, he went to Lucerne where he wrote the third act. While it took only three years to write the opera, it took another five to find an opera house willing to take the risk of showing it. In 1865, it was shown for the first time in Munich, after Vienna had dropped the piece in 1863 for being unplayable.

Historical sources on the story and its characters are so thin and rare that even the provenance of the story is in contention with historians. It became part of the King Arthur cycle in medieval times, and has found a broad reception over many cultures. German, Oriental, and Celt sources are in contention, with the Celtic provenance showing more promise than the others. Richard Wagner based his storyline on the writing of Gottfried of Strasburg at the beginning of the 13th century who in turn had his source in Thomas of Britain.

The legend tells us that Tristan was living at the court of King Mark of Cornwall. The Kingdom of Cornwall was a vassal of the Kingdom of Ireland. When time for tithing came round, Tristan killed the king of Ireland, but was wounded himself by his poisoned sword. He travelled to Ireland to find healing at the hands of Isolde who had been betrothed to the king of Ireland. They fall in love, but Tristan returns to Cornwall.

When Tristan is sent as an envoy to Ireland again, he has to bring Isolde as bride to King Mark. Isolde dislikes the prospect and plans murder and suicide, or double suicide, depending on your interpretation. She demands satisfaction for the death of her betrothed from Tristan. He agrees to drink the death potion she hands him, of which she drinks herself.

However, Isolde’s servant has switched the death potion for a love potion.

Eventually Tristan and Isolde are found out by King Mark, and Tristan tries to commit suicide on the sword of one of Mark’s men. Tristan is spirited away by his men and spends most of the last act agonising on an island until Isolde arrives. He dies in her arms, after which she dies too. No, the storyline is not the strongest point of the opera, with the final say going to Mark who also came to the island to forgive the two.

Tristan is a hero. We know that. And we better remember it, because Richard Wagner manages not to show us Tristan the hero for four hours of opera; quite an achievement. Tristan’s love for Isolde is doomed from the start; first for killing her betrothed, then as an envoy for King Mark. Unlike a modern dashing hero, he tries to avoid Isolde so as not to make a mistake he would come to regret. Overtaken by events, he again goes the way no modern hero would go and chooses death.

Isolde on the other hand is not the shrinking girl pawned off in a political marriage. She is very sure of what she wants and exactly how to get it. In the opera she becomes the mover and the heroes Tristan and Mark become her pawns. But her moves are not for revolution of conventions, but a backhanded acknowledgement of the status quo.

The dilemma of illicit love is an obvious one, but the story of Tristan and Isolde was perfect for Richard Wagner because of the double impossibility of a happy ending implicit from the start. The direct link of the opera to Mathilde Wesendonck tells us where he’s coming from. Even when offering to break convention at the very end of the opera with King Mark arriving for reconciliation, he makes sure the protagonists are already dead.

Some commentators allege that the opera is in part a representation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Schopenhauer was influenced by Hindu philosophy and believed that humans have to submit to suffering to the end. But this is in direct contradiction to Tristan and Isolde’s actions. Richard Wagner may have been reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s works, but his philosophy certainly found no reflection in this opera.

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