Tristan und Isolde

I first came to truly admire literature in high school. My teachers were excellent, and they presented the stories and legends behind the classics enthusiastically, turning me into a lifetime reader.

One of my favorite legends, which I first had to learn in Latin and later in German, was the tale of Tristan and Isolde. Of course, at that time, I had little interest I love stories, but I became fascinated with intricate plots, such as those associated with Shakespearean drama. Tristan and Isolde did not disappoint me.

Recently, with my newly discovered interest in opera, I am gravitating toward intricate plots, reminiscent to me of much of the great literature I have enjoyed throughout my life. As a result, I have been purchasing DVDs from the Metropolitan Opera to learn more about the meaning behind famous opera presentations. When I saw Tristan und Isolde, I bought it because I was familiar with the legend and figured it would be an easy start. Besides, it takes place during the Middle Ages, in days of old, when knighthood and chivalry prevailed, which is one of my favorite eras.

In Act I, Isolde is being taken by Tristan against her will to become the bride of his uncle, King Marke. Her companion, Brangäne, tries to console her, but Isolde sees only that Tristan, although a knight, shows no regard for her feelings.

Isolde tells Brangäne to send for Tristan, but Kurwenal, Tristan’s friend, tells him that Tristan is not at her beck and call. When Tristan finds out, he is embarrassed and sends Kurwenal away, but Isolde is furious. She recalls that Tristan, though wounded, had previously killed her fiancé, Morold, in combat while on an errand in Ireland on behalf of King Marke. Isolde had nursed him back to health, using her mother's knowledge of herbs and magic, but initially regretted it when she realized he was her fiancé's slayer. However, once she looked into Tristan’s eyes, she fell in love.

Now, feeling betrayed, and not wanting to be delivered to King Mark like a piece of chattel, Isolde puts a curse on both of them, wishing them dead. Isolde has Brangäne prepare one of her mother's death potions.

As they sight land, Isolde suggests Tristan make peace with her by sharing a drink. However, believing she was helping the situation, Brangäne had mixed a love potion instead of poison. Of course, their hormones are now raging.

In Act II, outside King Marke's castle, believing the king to be away on a hunting trip, Tristan and Isolde do their thing, if you catch my drift.  
Brangäne cautions Isolde about Melot, a jealous knight who has been watching Tristan. But Isolde insists Melot is Tristan's friend. Once again, Tristan and Isolde are doing their thing.

Unexpectedly, the king, accompanied by Melot, returns. Melot denounces the lovers, and the king feels dishonored. He confronts Tristan, who has no reply. Instead, then turns to Isolde and asks whether she will follow him into the realm of death. When Isolde accepts, Melot leaps forward, striking Tristan with his sword.
In Act III, Tristan lies mortally wounded. It appears only Isolde's magic potions can save him. Clinging to life, Tristan recalls his battle with Morold and wishes Isolde had never saved him. He now longs for Isolde and feels tormented. He begins to imagine Isolde's smile as she draws near.

In his delirium, Tristan tears off his bandages, allowing his wounds bleed so that he would heal forever. As Isolde rushes in, he falls dying in her arms. She begs him to hold on so they can share a final hour together, but in true opera form, he dies, and Isolde collapses.

Following a few more requisite deaths, including that of Morold, and clever plot twists, Isolde has no interest in the king’s friendly intentions. Still in a trance, she hears Tristan’s love from beyond, and falls dead upon Tristan's body, as the opera comes to an end.

Wow! There are a hundred versions of this ancient legend, and I left out quite a bit of detail. However, it takes the genre of opera to present the legend in such a manner that the audience is able to tolerate non-stop music, sex, and death, and still stand and cheer.

I am learning quite a bit.



  1. Dear JJ, excellent text about Tristan und Isolde. I admire your courage to see this opera!
    You know I am an opera buff, Wagner is one of my favorite composers and Tristan und Isolde is one of his best operas for me. But it took me several years to think as I do now! I saw and heard the opera dozens of times until I could understand all its magnitude.
    Wagner is not for beginners and I admit that someone who has his first operatic experience seeing and hearing an opera by Wagner, the probability that the operatic experience will end there is high!
    You were brave!

    1. I do not understand its magnitude, but I did enjoy it. I was familiar with the legend, however, which probably helped me. In any event, I am hooked.

  2. I agree you are brave explaining a Vagnerian opera. In these days of simple stories, few have the patience for the multiple complications in operatic tales--few have the patience for the multiple complications in any news reports. The public seems to appreciate thirty minute, one problem stories. Thank you Uncle Miltie.

    1. I don't know about brave, but it is the plot complexity that intrigues me.


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