Action and Drama
f you are about to see a production of Wagner's opera (or music drama as some people prefer to call it) you might want to know a few things about the opera. Especially if you are seeing it for the first time. So here is everything relevant that you will not read in the opera programme. Actually you might prefer to read this little essay and spend the price of a programme on an ice cream instead. As this is only an introductory note, we are not going deeply into the work: references and suggestions for your further reading are given at the end of the essay. I have added in parentheses relevant phrases in German for you to drop into conversations during the intermission, especially if attending a performance of this opera somewhere in Europe.
Above: A traditional version of Tristan und Isolde. The ship is taking them to Cornwall.
Richard Wagner called his Tristan und Isolde an action (
Left: A modern staging of Tristan und Isolde usually involves some intense knocking over of chairs. Bayreuth 2006.
Incidentally, when attending this opera for the first time, it might be best to ignore everything in the advance publicity, especially the bit about star-crossed lovers, setting an
expectation of something like a Mills and Boon novel rather than a drama about
Carl Dahlhaus made a useful distinction (in my view anyway) between "inner action" and "outer action". In this opera there is more inner action than outer (external) action. The inner action is going on in the heads of the lovers and of course they sing about it. The absence of outer action presents a difficulty for stage directors, who like to show us that they are contributing something, and they want to justify if possible their immense fees. Therefore they tend to supplement Wagner's libretto with bits of stage business, and to bring naked people onstage at random. This only distracts the audience from the narrative. Stage directors are always looking for subtexts and these are not hard to find, if they dip into recent books about the Wagner operas. One writer was convinced that this opera is about sacrifice, whilst another scribbler claimed that there is a subtext about homosexual jealousy. Subtexts are all very well but you must not lose sight of the core text, or in other words what the opera is about. Which is a question I shall come back to. It worries me that, when I speak to any opera fan who has seen more than one hundred performances of Tristan und Isolde, they cannot tell me what it is about.
I very much doubt that the average stage director who has been assigned to direct this opera has the slightest idea of what it is about and in many cases it is clear (for example from interviews) that they have not tried to find out. Perhaps we should not blame the stage director too much, however, because in many cases it is the opera house management who are at fault. Recently too many of them seem to believe that Tristan und Isolde is a standard repertory piece that requires no more preparation or rehearsal than does the average opera. Unfortunately the history of the work in performance tells a different story. And recently too many opera houses selected for their Tristan a theatre or film director who has never directed opera. Inevitably it all goes wrong.
The music critic Ernest Newman in his popular and still relevant book Wagner Nights (The Wagner Operas) asserted that it is not possible to understand the opera without a close study of not
only the poem (libretto) but also the Prose Draft (of which an English translation can be found in the Cambridge Opera Handbook), and so it is hardly surprising, he says, that after experiencing
this opera 99 out of 100 people will come away
Left: Tristan and Isolde as it appeared in the advance publicity you received from the opera house.
At the start, Wagner wrote to Liszt that his Tristan und Isolde was to be a simple opera that easily could be staged. Although it turned out not to be a simple opera, there was some truth in this. The challenges it presents are more for the singers (9 soloists and male chorus) and for the orchestra (of about 60 players) than any that exist for the production team. All that is needed to stage this opera are simple props: in the first act a cup and perhaps a sword, a box of potions, maybe a curtain (there are several stage directions for Brangäne to open or close the curtain that separates the ladies from the sailors); in the second act a lantern or torch, or perhaps a candle; and in the third act a bed or couch. There is no need, as Adolphe Appia and Wieland Wagner demonstrated, to fill the stage with enormous pieces of scenery (or suits of armour, or giant toastracks) that get in the way of the actors. As noted above, for much of the opera there is little action to be seen, and stage directors should not try to compensate by introducing irrelevant business such as Isolde self- harming.
Making Sense of Wagner's Opera
ome people believe, and a few of them have tried to convince me, that an opera, even one as complex as Tristan und Isolde, can be understood from its internal evidence alone. Only up to a point, I believe, is this true. As Newman wrote 70 years ago, you need more help, such as the Prose Draft, and an opera programme synopsis is not a good substitute. The score contains music, poetry and detailed stage directions. The music can be analysed in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm, tonality and so on. There are a good number of Leitmotive, if you want to play "spot the leading motif". They tend to be associated with abstractions such as day or night, love or honour. In the outer acts we can often hear the motif that has been identified with the sea. The empty sea which in the first act keeps the lovers together, on a ship, and in the third act keeps them apart. And of course the famous "Tristan chord", actually four of them, which I have written about in another essay. If you are skilled in music theory, you might be able to follow in the score a tonal argument, in which for example the tonality (major/minor) of A flat represents night, while B flat represents day, and B means transcendence 2. And so on. We can also study the words, of which there are far too many, and try to make sense of Wagner's transcendental poetry. There is a lot there about "Sehnen" (longing). Either she is waiting for him, or he is waiting for her, and there is much longing. But are they longing to consummate their desire or are they longing for death, or both? In the first act the lovers, who are pretending not to be in love, drink a magic potion that they both believe to be a death potion. But it isn't and they are surprised to find themselves alive, and keen to make the most of life (this is, as they say, the gimmick).
The more I study Tristan und Isolde, the stranger but also the more wonderful it seems. This work is unique in the Wagner canon because it began as music and the words (mostly) followed
later3. In December 1856 (two years after Wagner had written to Liszt about his enthusiasm for Schopenhauer and saying that in his
head he had conceived a Tristan und Isolde), he wrote to Marie Sayn-Wittgenstein that
Love and Death
ven the most superficial reading (or hearing) of Tristan und Isolde leaves the reader (or listener) in no doubt that it is a story
about the love between Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps that love is represented by that sweet little word
The difficulty here was caused by the philosopher Schopenhauer (who inspired Wagner's ideas for a Tristan opera), with his "metaphysics of sexual love". In the autumn of 1854 Wagner went overboard for
Schopenhauer's metaphysics 5 except for this part of it. Wagner was rather keen on sexual love and, what is more, he had already
written several operas about "redemption through love". So he was not willing to give up on it. In 1858 Wagner actually drafted a letter to Schopenhauer in which he offered a "correction", a new path of
salvation, in which the terrible Will could be pacified through
Turning to the other side of the opera, there is a lot about death. There are two distinct death motives in the score. The first one we hear in the first act, when Isolde sings of Tristan's death-devoted heart. In the second act this death motif is displaced by the leading motif of sweet death, representing a new conception of death, in which the lovers will be in some way united, or without separation as they describe it, in the realm of world-night. In the third act Tristan recalls the deaths of his parents, whom he never knew. He curses the potion but not because it was a love potion, rather because it threw him back from the gates of death into the sunlight.
The Backstory of Tristan and Isolde
n any of the later Wagner operas, a leading motive (Leitmotiv) is usually a motive of remembrance (Erinnerungsmotiv): it leads to, or recalls, an event that occurred onstage earlier in the opera. The glance motif is unusual, since it refers to an event that took place before the start of the opera: it refers to the moment when the lovers first realised that they loved each other. Long before the incident of the love potion. Here we see the problem with trying to understand the opera on internal evidence alone. What we are told, in the opera itself, about earlier events is fragmentary and incomplete. Sometimes an opera programme will provide a summary of the back story, from Gottfried's poem, to help the audience to understand the relationships between the characters. Kurwenal tells us how Morold came to Cornwall, to collect tribute, and how he was killed by Tristan. But he does not tell us that (according to Gottfried) Morold had been betrothed to Isolde, or that a piece of Tristan's sword was embedded in the head of Morold when it was returned to Ireland. Morold's sword had been poisoned and Tristan became seriously ill from it. He sailed to Ireland in the hope that Isolde (or her mother) could find an antidote that would heal him, disguised as "Tantris". Isolde tells us how she was about to kill Tantris when she met his gaze, and so she let the sword fall again. Only the glance motif tells us that this was the moment when the lovers discovered that they were in love; and it reminds us of this event again and again. If we are not allowed to use Gottfried's poem, or a summary of it, or the Prose Draft, to fill in some of the gaps, then it is not possible to understand what happened earlier because the libretto does not tell the entire story.
Desire and Magic
agic is taken for granted in 19th century opera and Wagner's operas are no exception. Isolde's mother is skilled in magic and she has prepared for her daughter a complete potion kit, which is being guarded by Brangäne. It includes a deadly poison (the death potion) and a love potion intended for King Marke. At the end of the first act, after drinking the love philtre, the lovers are keen to consummate their love, which they probably would have done right there on the stage, if they were not being held apart by Brangäne and Kurwenal. As Ernest Newman commented many years ago, whether or not it was a love philtre is not at all important: it might as well have been cold tea. Thomas Mann wrote that Brangäne could just as well have offered the lovers a glass of water 6. But we cannot rule out the possibility that the love potion really had some effect: Wagner in his own programme note suggests that it did. The important point is that they did not drink a deadly poison and so the lovers are surprised to find themselves alive. The shock of this discovery brings their until now suppressed passion into the open.
This is not original with Wagner, of course: he is following the story as told by Gottfried von Strassburg, who hinted that the love potion was not really necessary. In his "Tristan" poem there is a lot of consummating and for several chapters the lovers are doing it in corners and closets, anywhere that King Marke cannot see them. Wagner discards almost all of Gottfried's story, selecting only a few scenes to include in his opera. There is no cave where Marke can spy on the lovers, who know that he is watching and so are on their best behaviour; there is no Iseult of the White Hands to make trouble. Wagner simplifies the outer action to a minimum, while his music describes the inner action. At the end of the second act there is a crisis, the lovers are discovered, and Tristan is mortally wounded. In traditional productions he is stabbed by Melot, his false friend. Then in the third act we see Tristan on his sick bed, with Kurwenal tending him while a shepherd plays a long sad melody. Tristan is now only kept alive by his desire for Isolde, whom he sees in a sequence of visions. It is up to the audience to decide for themselves whether Isolde really arrives to hold the dying Tristan in her arms, or alternately that this is all inner action happening in the head of the unconscious hero.
Above: none of the usual clutter appears in this staging by Wieland Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival in 1952. This is act 3. Sometimes less is more.
f the most important word in the libretto is Sehnen then the second most important must be bewusst (conscious). Wagner wrote that in this opera he was undoing the work of the Will 7, in the sense that it works to achieve consciousness. Initially Tristan is conscious (bewusst) and, from some (not entirely certain) point in the final act, he is and remains unconscious (unbewusst). In the second act the lovers seem to be trying to become one being, ein-bewusst. By the end of the opera both of them are unconscious, if not actually dead. So perhaps it is a journey from consciousness to unconsciousness. What happens to Isolde after the second act is not at all clear: when she appears in the third act it might be only as a vision of the delirious Tristan.8 Initially (as in the Prose Draft) Wagner had intended that Isolde should walk into the sea and drown at the end of the opera. Hence the references to sinking and drowning in her final lines. But he dropped this idea, perhaps because it would be difficult to stage.
A Failed Suicide Pact and its Aftermath
ll of this can be confusing for the ordinary operagoer. Especially if he or she has been reading the opera programme, with its quotations from Novalis9 and other German poets you've never heard of. What is this opera really about? In simple terms, it is the story of a failed suicide pact. Summary: a couple try to escape from their situation by drinking poison but they actually drink a love potion (or possibly cold tea). Then they meet in secret and reflect on their new predicament (and metaphysics) until her husband gets home. There is a fight and Tristan is wounded. On his sickbed Tristan reflects on his life story, and on the deaths of his parents, while waiting for Isolde to come to him so that he can die in her arms. Therefore the opera can be seen as a meditation on love, death, longing and desire.
Selected References and Further Reading
1. Secondary Material and General References
2. Primary Sources
here are many audio recordings and about a dozen video recordings of Tristan und Isolde available. If some of them are not in current CD and DVD catalogues, you might be able to find them in second- hand shops or eBay. Many interesting recordings, for example live from Bayreuth in the 1950's, are appearing on minor labels or available as downloads, now that they are out of copyright protection. Relative to other canonical Wagner operas, however, there is a consensus that most of the Tristan recordings are unsatisfactory. Some people say that the conductors and singers of 50 or 60 years ago were much better with this opera than any featured on recent recordings. So many of the recordings I can recommend are rather old. With newer recordings you have to take your chances.
In roughly chronological order, audio recordings:
A few video recordings from those (sometimes) available on DVD or Blu-ray:
Footnote 1: Otto and Mathilde used the spelling Wesendonk. It was their son who chose to call himself Wesendonck. So their house used to be called the Villa Wesendonck although it's easier to find it if you ask for directions to the Museum Rietberg.
Footnote 2: For details, see Chafe's book. It is good but intense.
Footnote 3: In Wagner's brief diary entries (the Annals) there is a reference to (prose) sketches for Tristan and Die Sieger in October 1856 (BB p.126). It is uncertain when the Tristan sketch was written. It is presumably the same sketch that is mentioned by Cosima (CT 30 July 1879). This would only have been an outline, similar to the one for Die Sieger. The Prose Draft of Tristan und Isolde is dated 20 August 1857.
Footnote 4: As Carl Dahlhaus saw it, there is no question of words or music being primary or secondary in Tristan und Isolde, since they are interpenetrating. The music was not written to fit the words, any more than the words were written to fit the music. Neither is there a dominance of harmony over melody (or counterpoint) because the harmonies arise from voice- leading, while the melodies follow the harmony.
Footnote 5: The most important philosophical text in relation to Tristan und Isolde, in terms of what had inspired Wagner, must be Schopenhauer's essay On Death and the Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature, in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation. The most relevant part is towards the end of the essay: in Payne's translation on pages 507-8.
Death is the great opportunity no longer to be I, he writes, because it corrects the error of our existence as apparent individuals.
Footnote 6: Thomas Mann, Wagner und unsere Zeit, p.68; English tr. Blunden, Pro and contra Wagner, p.97.
Footnote 7: In Schopenhauer's metaphysics the Will is the only thing (thing-in-itself) that is really real, as opposed to appearance or representation. The label "Will" is misleading: it might also be called Eros, since it creates the world that we experience.
Footnote 8: A literal reading of the libretto suggests that Tristan is conscious for most of the third act. But there is good reason to doubt this, namely that the second half of this act has the character of a fantasy. Some people, including myself, take the view that from some point in the third act Tristan is and remains unconscious, so that from that point onward the action we see on stage is happening not in the real world but in his head. My own view is that Tristan is awake during the "delirium" and down to his second curse on the drink. After
Verflucht, wer dich gebraut!Tristan loses consciousness and the rest of the act is simply
der Welt holdester Wahn!A more extreme view is that Tristan is unconscious for all of the third act.
Footnote 9: There is no evidence that Wagner had read anything by Novalis, although in Cosima's Diaries they were interested in what Carlyle wrote about him. But some of Wagner's poetry in the second act of Tristan und Isolde resembles the Hymns to the Night of Novalis.