Opera Profile: ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ The Most Revolutionary Opera of the 19th CenturyBy David Salazar
“Tristan und Isolde,” which had its world premiere on June 10, 1865, might be the greatest opera of all time.
Or it might simply be the most revolutionary. Its entire musical philosophy was so unique that it revolutionized classical music forever.
Wagner wrote the work after falling in love with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. He also was involved in an extramarital affair at the time with the wife of one of his patrons, making the work one of his most autobiographical.
Short Plot Summary
Tristan is taking Isolde to his uncle King Marke to be his wife. He is in love with Isolde and she knows this. She also loves Tristan though all she wants to do is hate him for invading her homeland, murdering the man she was fated to marry, and then dragging her off on a ship to be married off to someone else. She had healed Tristan during the invasion and had her in his power, but the moment he opened his eyes and pleaded to her for his life, she fell in love with him. She now hates the fact that he would not make her his own but would simply give her away. She decides to kill them both through a poison and begs her friend Brangäne to concoct one for them.
She confronts Tristan and they drink the potion – but instead of a poison, it is a love potion. They reveal their true feelings for one another.
In the second act, the two lovers meet in the night while the King and his men go off hunting. But at the height of their passion, the King and his men barge in thanks to being revealed by Tristan’s “friend” Melot, who also desires Isolde. The King expresses his disappointment and Melot winds up stabbing Tristan.
Now on an island, Tristan is dying with his friend Kurwenal watching over him. Tristan suffers for his Isolde who eventually arrives too late. King Marke arrives to unite the lovers but finds Isolde transcend to another dimension to be reunited with Tristan.
Famous Musical Numbers
The opera’s music is among the most celebrated of all opera, with many composers of the time, including Verdi, in awe of the Wagner’s genius. Puccini never finished Turandot because he was trying to find the transcendent nature of Wagner’s “Tristan” in the final duet of the lovers.
The opera’s prelude and liebestod are usually paired together, representing the opposing sides of the opera’s musical philosophy. The prelude is the epitome of longing without finding any resolution while the liebestod, with that same yearning, finds its conclusion in the opera’s final chord. The prelude, of course, introduces the famed “Tristan chord” that would change the direction of classical music forever.
In between there are amazing passages for all the soloists, including Isolde’s curse, the love scene, King Marke’s monologue, and Tristan’s suffering.
Watch and Listen
Here is a famed recording featuring Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen.