“Handlung” in three acts. Running Time: 3 hours 40 minutes.
SETTING: The Irish Sea, Cornwall, and Brittany, second half of the 1st millennia. Tristan and Isolde already knew each other but drink a love potion and fall in magic love with each other. Lots of talk about love-death would be okay if not for the fact that Isolde is his aunt. Both die.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: On board a Cornish vessel in the Irish Sea. (75 minutes)
0: The prelude ** is the single most innovative piece in musical history (if you are a Wagnerian). It is okay but it is basically just a constant reshaping and reshuffling on a single rising theme, this is the Tristan Chord, but the best thing is a five note theme which Forman claims represents a “Gaze” motif. This, along with themes for Tristan and Isolde get reworked until we come back to the Chord and things slow down finally as the curtain rises.
13: The first singing occurs about ten minutes in when a tenor sailor does an a cappella sea ditty (this is yet another leitmotif: Sea). Isolde wakes up to some very standard recitative while the cello takes up the ditty. Isolde is very, very angry and this is expressed by the orchestra more so than by her vocals *. Basically the entire opera is like this so either turn back now, steel yourself for a long ride, or go kill yourself. The sailor comes back to finish off his ditty as a means of making us believe that even more time has passed than has actually already happened. Isolde then goes into a patch of Tristan Chords and some slightly more lyrical stuff from the orchestra as she orders her maid Brangane to fetch Tristan (it doesn’t last long). Lots of Sea motif forward things towards our introduction to Tristan and Kurwenal. Brangane has exchanges with Tristan in a most standard recitative.
24: Kurwenal’s anti-Irish bit of British jingoism is oddly a lite point in the proceedings *. The sailors take up the tune briefly as well.
27, 37: Isolde recounts the story of how she and Tristan first met * as a result of him executing her then fiancé. A bit of Gaze motif shows up. She describes how she tended his own wounds, how he apparently swore to love her forever, and now she is getting dumped on his uncle for political reasons. She gets some high notes towards the end and encounters a lot of ornery brass chords. Brangane tries to quell her mistress’ wrath *. Tristan Chords abound, but it is also a little boring.
44: A frightful chorus of sailors interrupts everything but with Kurwenal comes one of the few jovial bits in the piece *, a dancing melody based on Sea. Isolde orders him to tell Tristan to visit her before they reach Cornwall. So on to the two women discussing which drug from Isolde’s mum’s box of chemical wonders to use: poison or love potion? The orchestral whirls about for a long time, finally becoming more tranquil, more multiple repeats of the Tristan Chord. Kurwenal tells them that Tristan is coming, heavy brass ensues as he is left alone with Isolde, this gets annoying fast.
55, 64: The first Tristan-Isolde duet doesn’t get very far until Isolde makes him feel like human trash * and he tells her to take his sword and kill him. So, off to a good start! She then says that killing her future husband’s nephew isn’t exactly good for family relations so she declines, but she will drink with him as a sign of reconciliation (seeing that she will soon be his aunt). The sailors’ constant interruptions to “Hi-Ho” every 60 seconds doesn’t help proceedings. Isolde does get one skittish string tune * but otherwise it is rather dull and Tristan gets incredibly little to do, although a lot of what both are saying at this point is about death. More sailors, Tristan freaks out, Isolde has them drink whatever it is Brangane souped up and they wait for most likely death. We get repeats of the prelude, lots of Tristan Chord.
71: The potion takes effect, they love each other now! They start pawing each other in the most inappropriate way just as the ship docks in Cornwall. This at least is of an intensity one expects, for once **. The final is a little ridiculous as it all happens in a matter of seconds: Kurwenal tries to separate Tristan from Isolde (King Mark is approaching) Brangane is doing a slightly better job with Isolde as she explains she switched out the poison for the love potion. Tristan begs for one last clinch but no, they must all disembark and Wagner tries to pull off battery chords.
ACT 2: The Garden of King Mark’s Castle, around midnight. (72 minutes)
0, 2, 4, 13: The prelude ** is a good piece although the concept it is conveying is rather ridiculous. Apparently hunting at night is a thing in Cornwall? We meet three new themes: Day, the first thing, Frustration, and Ecstasy. It ends with probably the most haunting horn theme in opera *. Brangane warns Isolde that her sexy time with Tristan will probably not be a good idea seeing that the vicious Melot lurks about. The duet that the two women embark on is closer to what I would expect of the opera **. Eventually there is a big climax for Isolde as she has Brangane do the sign thingy for Tristan to come.
15: All hell breaks loose ***. It goes to an extreme that I sort of wished never happened as Tristan and Isolde embark on a mind intoxicating ecstatic sex talk hurricane. This is the one moment in the opera where Wagner finally does take things up, but I feel he actually goes too far. The effect is post-orgasmic when we should actually be in arousal stage. As they come off from the five minute high (which probably has a similar effect to hard controlled substances on the human brain, personally it makes me dizzy) it does start to get tired and then, well, boring. It does include a single theme, Night, yet another tum-ti-tum-ta theme, which sustains itself for three minutes but after that the boredom starts to settle in, or rather it gets more standard. The spell breaks, and the rest is just okay. Tristan Chords show up. There is a point, after fifteen minutes in where it totally collapses marked by a brass chord just as the two embark on a hymn like piece.
35: Brangane’s warning *, more of the duet-style stuff, it makes my head hurt and my eyes water in all honesty (especially the sustained high bit). It is probably like taking heroin and cocaine at the same time and then O.D.ing and seeing Bob Marley on the other end. A star in order to beware of it!
38: The second half of the duet is sub-par in comparison to the first half although it has about half the punch of it *. They go into a lot of Schopenhauer here about love-deaths and how exciting death must be. It really doesn’t do much of anything for me, possibly a relief after that schizophrenic trip I experienced in the first half. Any whoo, eventually Brangane gives another warning, but it is totally wasted (in multiple ways). Something happens in the last minute as the music swells and they almost climax all over the place.
66: The lovers are exposed, although how much bodily fluid can be traced to the two is uncertain. Screams from the two women, Kurwenal arrives in a pathetic warning attempt but none of it works and King Mark shows up and tells them how naughty they all are in a ten-minute aria that is as suicidally boring as the love duet was mental illness inducing. Eventually we get some more Tristan Chords, which at this point will either be incredibly boring or inducing of a psychotic episode depending on how Wagner has gotten to you. Tristan invites Isolde to his residence for some reason to a rather lush accompaniment * and then Melot stabs Tristan because why not and the act ends with one contemplating why exactly you have put yourself through all of this because Wagner can’t write an act end to save his soul.
ACT 3: Outside Tristan’s Castle in Brittany.
0, 11, 17, 46, 50, 53: The prelude **, one of the nicer pieces in the score and is mostly based on the Isolde theme played in a minor key, this main theme, as an ascending scale, is repeated frequently in the next half hour. A shepherd’s pipe (actually a cor anglais) is heard in the distance doing its chromatic thing. Kurwenal questions the shepherd and nothing much else until Tristan revives and Kurwenal and the orchestra get happy *, eventually turning into an extremely brief Polonaise. Tristan then broods about in delirium * for twenty minutes, none of it particularly interesting nor new musically but it is the only game in town until he drops from exhaustion of wanting to see Isolde’s ship and fantasizing about combining sex with her and death and Kurwenal thinks he is dead (if only). A ship appears **, and Tristan is certain it is Isolde’s! Kurwenal leaves him to fetch the Queen but Tristan goes crazy in the meantime and tears open his wound for some bizarre Schopenhauerian reason *. Isolde arrives and Tristan dies as Gaze theme plays. This means we are alone on stage with Isolde for some time as she embarks on a mini-Lieberstod *.
68: Everything gets straightened out (sort of): Kurwenal is killed by King Mark’s men after he slays Melot. Brangane reveals everything about the love potion to the King. Thus there is nothing left but for Isolde to enter her own love-death and die. At first very slow, she climaxes *** and drops. Curtain.
The one thing I can say about Tristan is that it is the only mature Wagner opera that definitely has no anti-semitic tropes in it. However, that is really the only good thing I can say, except maybe that all three preludes are nice. The plot would have been better served by a later French composer, certainly it would then be more lush than this. It isn’t that Wagner totally ignores this element, it just isn’t saturated enough. Instead, we get weak standard chords, rushes of string music, very ordinary music actually, when the scenario really calls for something more along the lines of Lalo, Chausson, or even Wagner’s later Parsifal but more sexy. Tristan und Isolde while in one way being an innovative work (of sorts) is also incredibly traditional in terms of most of its sound world. Sure it is chromatic in places, but along side that is some very boring recitative limping about on a crutch, and by act three, he is using triplets because of a loss of ideas. Wagner basically has one big theme (not tune, theme) here and he milks it to death. My biggest problem with Tristan isn’t that it is overwhelming me (although a few minutes of it does) with Wagner love-death addiction, it is that it is overall so boring! The first act is just inert, the second is better (especially in the beginning), but it too falls apart in the last twenty minutes, act three is musically okay, but almost nothing happens other than Tristan’s death and Isolde’s arrival. Melot is a casting waste, so is King Mark to a lesser extent. What is more, no other opera has been so praised for what amount to rather little of its score. There are only two mind-numbing pieces here: the first half of the second act love duet, and the Lieberstod (together about thirty minutes in an opera that is over three and a half hours(!) ), the rest is either okay or even sub-par. To judge a work of such length, the few good bits really don’t make up for the much longer boring sections. What is more these good bits are extreme, as in suffocating or nervous system wrecking, and that really isn’t good. It is never a good thing when the climax of the opera might be great, but I also wish it didn’t exist as a thing. Thus, this is the operatic equivalent of heroin (it might be amaze balls the first time but afterwards it is just depressing and will eventually lead to death), and I am rather thankful that no one, even Wagner, dared to repeat it. One opera like this is one too many. A popular gamma.