Opera Scotland

Tristan and Isolde Tristan und Isolde

Richard Wagner (born Leipzig, 2 March 1813; died Venice, 13 February 1883)

The composer.

Several medieval sources, including the epic Tristan (c1210) by Gottfried von Strassburg.

First performance: Munich (Court Theatre), 10 June 1865.
First UK performance: London (Drury Lane), 20 June 1882.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Royal Lyceum Theatre), 14 March 1901.
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (King’s Theatre), 28 April 1973.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Tristan und Isolde for its influence on subsequent generations of composers. It was seen as revolutionary and shocking, and divided opinion for the rest of Wagner’s life and for many years afterwards. More than perhaps any other piece of music, its influence has spread to other arts and sciences, particularly in studies of psychology. In Wagner’s adaptation, it is clear the love potion simply removes inhibitions, rather than actually creating a love that wasn’t already there before, if only subconsciously.

Main Characters
Isolde, an Irish princess (soprano)
Brangäne, Isolde’s attendant (mezzo-soprano)
Kurwenal, Tristan’s squire (baritone)
Tristan, a Cornish knight, nephew to King Marke (tenor)
Melot, a Cornish courtier (tenor)
King Marke of Cornwall (bass)
A Shepherd (tenor)

Plot Summary
Isolde is being ferried from Ireland to Cornwall for her marriage to King Marke. Her escort is Marke’s nephew Tristan, but she hates him. She had some time earlier nursed him back to health when he was wounded in combat, but had discovered he was responsible for the death of her cousin Morold, whom she had intended to marry. She angrily decides on suicide, and that she will take Tristan with her. She orders Brangäne to prepare a drink containing poison. As they approach harbour, Tristan is invited to drink with her, but they discover they love one another – Brangäne has substituted a love potion for the expected poison.

Some time after the marriage, Marke goes hunting, leaving Isolde alone. She arranges an assignation with Tristan that night, since it seems they can only meet in darkness, and they have a passionate love scene. They are interrupted by the sudden return of Marke, engineered by Melot. The king is heart-broken at his betrayal by Tristan, but not vengeful, even when Isolde declares she wishes to be with her lover. Wishing only for death, Tristan permits himself to be wounded by Melot.

Kurwenal takes Tristan home to his own castle in Brittany, where his recovery is very slow. He is obsessed with Isolde, and a shepherd is stationed on watch to play on his pipe whenever a ship is sighted. After several false alarms, the shepherd’s joyful tune announces the imminent arrival of Isolde, and Tristan dies in her arms. A second ship brings Marke and his entourage. Kurwenal kills Melot, himself dying in the process, unaware that Tristan has been forgiven. Brangäne has explained the cause of the problem and there has been reconciliation. A transfigured Isolde sings her Liebestod, as she longs to join Tristan in death.


EMI and others (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1953

Conductor: Wilhelm Furtwängler
Philharmonia Orchestra
Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde), Ludwig Suthaus (Tristan), Josef Greindl (Marke).

This recording achieved instant classic status on the day it first appeared, and in spite of its age there is no sign of its being eclipsed. Furtwängler and the Philharmonia still sound wonderful. Flagstad was one of a handful of dominant Wagnerian sopranos of her generation. The supporting cast includes a youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Kurwenal, and the American mezzo Blanche Thebom as Brangäne.

PHILIPS (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1966

Conductor: Karl Böhm
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Birgit Nilsson (Isolde), Wolfgang Windgassen (Tristan), Martti Talvela (Marke).

Most of the Wagner works performed at Bayreuth have been issued frequently on recordings made live at the Festspielhaus – there seem to have been lots of versions of the Ring, Parsifal, the Dutchman, etc. over the years. It is strange, then, that there do not seem to be many rival live versions of Tristan. There can be few that could stand comparison with this glorious account. Böhm was already elderly by this time, but his conducting is quite electrifying. The director was Wieland Wagner, so perhaps three months before his death there was something special there. The cast is phenomenal. Nilsson is in majestic form, and Windgassen is far better than his reputation merely for reliability would suggest. Talvela was a wonderful singer, perhaps on the young side for Marke. The cast also includes Christa Ludwig as Brangäne and Eberhard Wächter as Kurwenal.

EMI (4 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1971

Conductor: Herbert von Karajan Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Helga Dernesch (Isolde), Jon Vickers (Tristan), Karl Ridderbusch (Marke)

This Karajan recording divided opinion in its day. One element that still seems unsatisfactory is the actual sound quality, with the orchestra dominating the singers at several points, while not always sounding entirely clear itself. However Vickers is a wonderful, tortured Tristan, and Ridderbusch a noble Marke. Excellent support comes from Christa Ludwig (Brangäne), Walter Berry (Kurwenal) and Bernd Weikl (Melot). The most important element for Scottish Opera veterans will undoubtedly be the Isolde of Helga Dernesch. Like Janet Baker, David Ward, Charles Craig, and several others, she was a vital member of the Scottish Opera team at this period, and she gave magnificent performances as Isolde in 1973, which formed the climax of her many roles with the company.

The Cast

 Isolde's attendant
 an Irish princess
King Mark
 King of Cornwall, Tristan's uncle
 Tristan's squire
 a Cornish courtier
 a Cornish knight

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