Tristan und Isolde – Richard Wagner – Bernard Haitnik
Royal Opera House – Covent Garden
On 17 October 2000 I was at ROH for Tristan and Isolde, a music drama by Wagner with libretto by the composer, conducted by Bernard Haitnik. The work was written in 1855-7, for the most part in Venice where Wagner had fled with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of wealthy Zurich businessman. It was his love for Mathilde that inspired him to write this – his most personal, deeply felt and perhaps greatest music drama. The chief source of the story was the epic poem Tristan and Isolde by Mester Gottfried said to have been town clerk in Strasbourg in the 13th Century. The opera is set in Cornwall. With the assistance of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the work was performed in Munich on 10 June 1865.
In Act II the lovers declare their feelings and longing for the night which unites them spiritually and their hatred for the cruel light of day which separates them: “O sink hernieder Nacht” (O sink upon us night of love, let me now forget I live).
In the legend Isolde, Princess of Ireland is being brought by ship to Cornwall for an arranged marriage to King Marke. During the voyage she remains with her attendant Brangane, tormented by feelings for her proud escort, Sir Tristan (Marke’s nephew) whose life she once saved even though he had killed Morold, her betrothed. Tristan and Isolde fall passionately into each other’s arms after taking a love poison as the ship arrives in Cornwall and is only separated when Marke arrives to claim his bride. After marriage, Isolde lives in a pavilion on Marke’s state and is visited by Tristan. But his best friend, Melot, also in love with Isolde, jealously conspires so that the lovers are found by Marke. Melot is enraged that the King reacts sorrowfully rather than angrily and attacks Tristan, wounding him.
Tristan is carried by his servant Kurwenal to the family castle in Brittany. His wounds won’t heal so Kurwenal sends to Isolde for help. She arrives to embrace Tristan as he dies. Marke and his retinue have followed her. In the skirmish Melot and Kurwenal are killed and Isolde expires over Tristan’s body after singing of true love only consummated in death (Leibestod-Mild und leise).
There is a parallel here with the love story of Mathilde and Wagner who are said to never have consummated their union due to barriers of guilt and social conventions. It was an idealised love – living the illusion of being lovers for the rest of their lives. Herbert Wernicke – Director – uses the gimmick in the production. The lovers never touch and barely look at each other, but inhabit two cutaway boxes – Tristan’s frigid blue, Isolde’s furious red – that glide around the stage.
They say the music of Tristan and Isolde is the most powerful and erotic ever written reducing audiences to sobbing fits, passing out and even fear for their lives. Them there are seven simultaneous orgasms in Act two.
Two conductors died during Tristan and Isolde. Says Haitink: “Karajan said the danger point was the love duet, because after all the energy you have spent the adrenalin drops but you still have to concentrate so much.”
Isolde was performed by Gabriele Schnaut and Tristan by John Frederic West; Brangane (her maid) was Petra Lang and Kurwenal (Tristan’s servant) was Alan Titus; Melot (a courtier) was Christopher Booth-Jones and King Mark was Peter Rose.