Tristan has been tasked with deliver the Irish princess, Isolde, to his uncle and her husband to be, King Marke of Cornwall. Isolde is furious at Tristan, and regrets sparing his life as he lay wounded on the battlefield, defeated by Isolde’s betrothed, Morold. She pitied him then and despises him now for taking her captive. Isolde orders Brangäne, her trusted companion, to prepare a poison for Tristan: she will offer to share a drink with him to make peace, killing them both. But Brangäne gives Isolde a love potion instead of a poison, and, once they taste it, their passion for each other is uncontrollable.
At King Marke’s castle, Tristan and Isolde steal a night together, under the watchful eye of Brangäne and share a series of intense duets. They know that if they are found out, their relationship would mean death, but for them death is inseparable from love. Despite Brangäne’s warnings, the couple are betrayed and Tristan’s former companion, Melot, leads King Marke directly to them. In the conflict, Tristan is mortally wounded. He returns home to Brittany, and awaits Isolde’s arrival. The more he waits, the more he passionately curses love, until his energy is spent. Isolde arrives as Tristan breathes his last. Brangäne confesses that she is responsible, but it is too late. Isolde’s love for Tristan has taken her mind, and after giving her beautiful Liebestod, she joins Tristan in death.
Wagner’s beautiful retelling of this ancient celtic myth features some of the most demanding, passionate vocal writing for any singer. At just under five hours’ running time in most productions, Tristan und Isolde is not an opera for the faint-hearted, but it is definitely a masterpiece that is worth devoting the time to.
Tristan und Isolde guide sections