An inktroduction by Ng Yeuk Fan
|from Inkpot Issue 70|
THE STORY of Tristan und Isolde begins rather abruptly in a ship’s inner chamber with Isolde, princess of Ireland, being escorted to Cornwall to be married to Marke, King of Cornwall. The joyous excitement which animates the crew as the ship approaches its goal is shared neither by the bride nor Tristan, who had wooed her for his Uncle, King Marke.
Wagner skillfully uses narratives to shorten an already long and complicated story. Through Isolde’s narratives in Act 1, we are told that Tristan had killed her betrothed Morold in a battle to win the independence of Cornwall from Ireland. Though victorious, Tristan had been struck by Morold’s sword and was suffering from a wound that refuses to heal. In his seeking for a cure, he returned to the defeated land under the guise of an anagramic name Tantris to seek Isolde, who is also a magician healer. There, Isolde discovers that the fragment found in her departed fiancé’s head fitted the notch in Tristan’s sword. Realising that Tantris is in fact Tristan her enemy, she approached his bed to take her revenge... then their eyes met, and the weapon fell from her hand.
This meeting of glances, the Augenblick, followed by no words of explanation, no declaration of love, is the key to the whole drama. Later, healed and back in Cornwall, Tristan realises that his blood guilt would divide them both forever and in an act of supreme selflessness, offers to woo Isolde for King Marke as both atonement for his sins and also to suppress the enemies in the court. This brings us back to the ship in which thus Isolde had set sail to Cornwall for the unlikely marriage - bearing her own defiance towards her feelings for Tristan.
Left: "LOVE: Tristan and Isolde". Courtesy of and ©Kris Waldherr. This and other paintings by the artist can be found at her Art and Words website.
Act 1. The principal action here reveals Isolde to be upset by her own self-denial and she demands that Tristan speak with her in her chamber. Tristan, still morose with guilt and pangs of love, refuses. Outraged, Isolde commits that unless Tristan drinks ‘atonement’ with her, she will not descend from the ship even as it approaches Cornwall. Left without choice, Tristan finally approaches Isolde, knowing fully what atonement meant.
Unknowingly, Brangäne, Isolde’s maid servant, had substituted a love potion for the poison which Isolde had meant to drink with Tristan; but , it is not because of the love potion that the two fall in deep love; instead it is the knowledge of imminent death together that had made them obligatorily free to admit their love to each other and it is in this ecstatic delirium that they arrive at Cornwall.
Act II. Tristan and Isolde meet in a forest and there exchange their vows of love. It is here that the musical idea of the Liebestod is born and extolled ecstatically. True to tragic proportions, Tristan’s friend Melot betrays him and arrivals unannounced with King Marke to find the ignominious couple in each other's arms. Tristan, unable to explain his actions to his uncle and King, tenderly asks if Isolde will follow him into death. Isolde bids him to show her the way and then, Tristan accuses Melot of betrayal and challenges him to a duel in which he allows himself (Tristan) to suffer a mortal wound.
Kurwenal, faithful servant and friend of Tristan retreats both of
them to Kareol, Tristan’s birth castle. There, they await the arrival
of Isolde, whom he had called upon to save Tristan. Almost unconscious
and half in delirium, Tristan twice imagines the arrival of Isolde’s
ship. Tristan recounts in a long soliloquy that by healing him of his
wound, Isolde had torn open another in his heart; and that the love
potion having been the most poisonous of draughts to have delivered him
irrevocably into the pain of longing.
But King Marke had not followed Isolde in order to battle - Brangäne had explained about the love potion and Marke had come intending to unite the two lovers.
Isolde gazes in rapture at Tristan - who for her, had awoken briefly to new life - and dies. In death, she unites herself with him in the transfigured certainty of the immortality of their love.
IN THE COURSE of its performing history, Tristan und Isolde has increasingly become a vehicle for not only great singers but great conductors as well. Of all Wagner’s works, Tristan und Isolde, together with the Ring cycle and Parsifal, offers the conductor the most significant opportunity for an individual interpretation.
Though Wagner is often seen as larger than life, for the lovers involved and conductors who understand that - it is never a case of too dramatic nor too epic, it is always sincere and proportionate. Approaching Wagner this way, one senses a redrawing of the scales which Wagner had employed - one then marvels at how applicable Wagner could have been, applied to real life.
It must be true enough then, that unless one
allows oneself to dream and imagine - one will never quite become the
hero in our own lives. Understandably, few will understand the
magnitude of the love and torment that Wagner himself must have
Kris Waldherr (tristan2.jpg) Painting of "LOVE: Tristan and Isolde" ©Kris Waldherr Art and Words . This and other paintings by the artist can be found at her Art and Words website.
Julek Heller (tristan4 and 5.jpg) ©Julek Heller. From Knights, by Julek Heller & Deirdre Headon. Encore Editions: London, 1989)
Tristan header image (tristantitle.jpg) based on detail from "Tristan and Isolde" (1912) by John Duncan (1866 - 1945)
Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - Recording Reviews:
Ring of Drama