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Opera Essentials: Tristan und Isolde

Our quick guide to Richard Wagner's hugely influential opera.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

25 November 2014 at 6.18pm | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…

The Irish princess Isolde has been forced to agree to marry King Marke of Cornwall. Furious, she resolves to kill both herself and Marke’s nephew Tristan, who is escorting her to Cornwall and whom she secretly loves. But her confidante Brangäne substitutes the death potion with a love potion – forcing Tristan and Isolde to admit their love.

The Public and the Private

Christof Loy’s production highlights the contrast between the public world of King Marke’s court, depicted as an elaborate wedding dinner, and the passionate intimacy of Tristan and Isolde’s relationship. The two worlds – the public and the private – are divided by a curtain; as the opera progresses the public world intrudes more and more, with dramatic results.

Legendary Lovers

The legend of Tristan and Isolde has both Celtic and Breton origins, and exists in various forms. Wagner used one of the early literary versions of the legend, Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, as the basis of the drama. The composer simplified the story a great deal, and cut out many of the characters to focus on the psychology of Tristan, Isolde and Marke.

An Epoch-Making Score

The score of Tristan und Isolde is famous for its richly chromatic harmony (including the passage in the Prelude containing the famous ‘Tristan chord'). The love music – particularly the extended duet for Tristan and Isolde in Act II, and Isolde’s radiant Transfiguration in Act III – is some of the most intense and sensual in opera, and has inspired many later composers including Benjamin BrittenRichard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky.

A Sensational Premiere

Tristan und Isolde was first performed in Munich on 10 June 1865. The first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died less than two month later; rumours that this was due to the exertions of singing Tristan fortunately proved false! Although some critics were hostile towards Wagner’s opera, many were very enthusiastic, and the opera soon became part of the core repertory. Tristan und Isolde has been performed regularly by The Royal Opera over the years, with five different productions since 1948.

Tristan und Isolde runs 5–21 December 2014. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and is given with generous philanthropic support from Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, Bertrand and Elisabeth Meunier and Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson.

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