Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde

Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde (variously spelled as Tristan and Isolda, Tristan and Yseult, or Tristan and Ysolt) is the Romeo and Juliet of German opera. The mere mention of the names gives the connotation of unhappy lovers in a secret relationship with an unhappy ending. There are many versions of the story available that almost everyone has at least some idea of what is going on which makes it one of the ‘easier’ works by Richard Wagner to watch and actually know what is happening on stage.

Tristan and Isolde: The Opera

Richard Wagner wrote the first act of the opera Tristan and Isolde during his exile in Zurich in Switzerland. He was having a not so secret relationship with poetess Mathilde Wesendonck whose husband was not impressed by either. Richard Wagner was staying as a guest at the Wesendonks’ property. He had to leave Zurich after finishing the first act for Venice in Italy where he wrote the second act. Constrained to leave Venice, too, he moved to Lucerne in Switzerland where he wrote the third act. It took him only three years to write the opera but it took five years more to find an opera house willing to show it.

In 1865, it was shown for the first time in Munich in Germany after Vienna in Austria had dropped the piece in 1863 for being unplayable. The tenor playing Tristan died shortly after the opening night at the age of only 29. The opera became known as murderous referring not only to its musical difficulties or the number of corpses littering the stage as part of the play. In 1911, the conductor of the Munich State Opera died during a rendition, as did one of his successors in 1968.

Tristan and Isolde: Some History

Historical sources on where the story and its characters originated thin and rare. Its provenance is in permanent contention with historians. Tristan became part of the King Arthur cycle and there are many medieval writers adapting the story to their liking. It has found such a broad reception over many cultures that most of them might put some claim to its roots. German, Oriental, and Celt sources are in contention, with the Celtic provenance showing more promise than the others. But they could just have been merged and mixed as well.

The name of Tristan seems to point in the direction of Ireland and Cornwall, as the lay of Drystan fab Tallwch shows. A stele found near Castle Dore in Cornwall with the name Drustanus incised gives a pointer for the name of Tristan, at least.

Tristan and Isolde: The Legend

Richard Wagner based his story-line on the writing of Gottfried of Strasburg who wrote at the beginning of the 13th century. He in turn had his source in Thomas of Britain. Richard Wagner was also using modern adaptations of his time.

The legend relates that Tristan was living at the court of King Mark of Cornwall. The king of Cornwall was a vassal of the Kingdom of Ireland. When time for tithing came round again, Tristan killed the king of Ireland, but was wounded himself by his poisoned sword. He traveled 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 he is sent as an envoy to Ireland again, he has to bring Isolde to Cornwall to be wed to King Mark. Isolde is not excited by the prospect and plans murder and suicide, or double suicide, depending on how you want to interpret it. She demands satisfaction from Tristan for the death of her betrothed, and he willingly agrees to drink the death potion she hands him and also drinks herself. But Isolde’s servant had switched the 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 of Mark’s knights. He is only wounded and is spirited away by his men to an island off Cornwall. There, he spends most of the last act agonizing until Isolde finally arrives. He dies in her arms upon which she dies, too. And no, the story-line is not the strongest point of the opera.

Tristan and Isolde: The Dilemma

Tristan is a warrior and 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 he kills her betrothed, then he is but an envoy for King Mark. Unlike a modern dashing hero, he tries to avoid Isolde 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 how she is going 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 for the double impossibility of a happy end implicit in the start of it. The direct link of the opera to Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of his major sponsor at the time he started writing, 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 and Buddhist philosophy and believed that humans have to submit to suffering to the end. This is in direct contradiction to Tristan and Isolde’s actions in the opera. While Richard Wagner had been reading Schopenhauer's work, the opera is not influenced by his philosophy.

Tristan and Isolde: Did You Know?

Tenor Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld died of an infectious illness six weeks after the premier of Tristan and Isolde at the age of 29. His death gave the opera the stigma of being murderous not only for its scores and for the many dead bodies accumulating on stage as part of the play.

Ludwig's wife, soprano Malwina Garrigues Schnorr von Carolsfeld, played Isolde in the first production alongside her husband. She ended her career abruptly after her husband’s death.

The musical scores for Tristan and Isolde at the Munich State Opera are marked to this day at the exact places where its directors collapsed during renditions in 1911 and 1968.

There are at least four different Tristan and Isolde stories in circulation; they vary quite markedly from each other. If you want to get into the myth, you will have to read all of them.

Further reading

Eric Bana

Henry Cavill

Kellan Lutz

Jason Momoa

John Carter

Craig Verm