Tristan and Isolde

Ralph Middenway previews Richard Wagner's sublime opera about tragic love.

[Edited for present purposes from a feature article in ‘The Adelaide Advertiser’, early 1990]

Doomed lovers and the eternal triangle are universal and enduring themes across dramatic and narrative art forms in most world cultures. Tristan and Isolde, and the ‘wronged man’ Marke, are the players in one of the oldest Western tragic stories outside the Classical tradition. While it dates from the post-Roman ‘Arthurian’ period in Britain, it may, like the Homeric stories from Greece, be a story with its roots in remote antiquity, told and retold and only written down in something like one of its present forms at a time when reading and writing began to seem as important as bardic chanting and story-telling in the lives of the Celts. The story is now probably best-known in the remodelled form used by Richard Wagner in his opera, universally regarded as one of the supreme art-works in Western music drama, with the status of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or Mozart's Don Giovanni.

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The Celtic World

The best operas have a universal theme, but are generally set in a particular social context. While such an opera need not be in any sense a documentary, it can be a help to see its action in some sort of historical perspective.

The pre-literate Celts were among the most numerous tribes of Europe north of the Alps for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and have been the subject of much archæological research. And of much fantastic speculation, not least the construction of a pseudo-Druidical cult, involving sedate Midsummer pre-breakfast song-and-dance drag parties at Stonehenge, a sort of cucumber-sandwich version of ASTERIX - The Musical. But the imperialist expansion of the Romans, under the Caesars, followed after a time by Franco-Roman cultural imperialism, meant the subjugation of most of the Celts and the eclipse of their culture over most of Europe.

The half-mythical ‘Arthurian’ period, when the story of Tristan and Isolde is set, is reckoned to be in about the sixth century, after the Roman Empire had faded from the scene, before the Germanic tribes had formed loose federations capable of consistent control over their neighbours in Western Europe, and long before the Vikings became a major force.

The major enclaves of Celts were in Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, with other groups holed up in the rugged mountains of Scotland and Wales and of continental Europe, under cultural pressures from the remnants of the Roman Empire, often Romanised Celts, or from the vigorous, expanding tribes of Germans. There was considerable traffic across the water, especially as the Saxons began to press in on the Cornish Celts, many of whom left to join their kin in Brittany, others doubtless escaping across the sea to Ireland.

It is difficult these days to form anything like a realistic impression of what life must have been like for the Celts at that time. One can only say that they still mined tin for export for the bronze trade, fished, engaged in subsistence farming, lived in scattered villages under the eye of ruling and priestly classes, had a rich religious life, later to be increasingly influenced by the spread of Christian ideas and that, overall, the level of their culture might be thought of as roughly analogous with that of the Japanese of the period (settled, pre-literate, pre-Buddhist) or of some of the Bantu tribes in southern Africa in the middle of last century (settled, pre-literate, pre-Christian).

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Tristan, Isolde and Marke

The three principals in the story (although in Wagner's version Marke is on stage for a comparatively short time) are presented as coming from three different parts of the Celtic world. The youngish but mature Tristan, the landholder of an estate in Brittany, owes fealty to his uncle and sometime foster-father, Marke, King of Cornwall, for whom he acts as a champion in Marke's struggle to improve his position against the hostile Irish king, who claims tribute from him, sending his own nephew and champion, Morold, to collect it. Tristan engages the Irish champion in combat and kills him with a blow to the head, chipping his sword, the chip staying in the wound to be found later by his betrothed (and cousin), the Irish princess Isolde. Tristan is seriously wounded in the fight and, as luck would have it, chooses to place himself under the care of Isolde, a renowned healer, who nurses him back to health using religious formulæ (Christians might refer to white magic). She is, however young, a formidable woman. (I say ‘as luck would have it’, because Tristan and Isolde fall in love with each other, without saying anything about it. And then Isolde sees that the chip she removed from the head of her betrothed fits the nick in Tristan's sword: she is in love with her beloved's killer.)

His health restored, Tristan returns to Cornwall to continue his service to Marke. His next task, it turns out, is to return to Ireland to collect Isolde and bring her back to Marke for a political marriage to link the fortunes of Cornish and Irish royalty. He sails to Ireland, collects Isolde and is almost within sight of Marke's landing in Cornwall when the lights go down in the theatre, the conductor enters, the audience settles and the haunting opening bars of the Prelude are heard.

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Supporting Roles

But there are five other characters involved in the story in critical ways:

Brangäne is Isolde's older, ever-faithful, ever-well-meaning lady-in-waiting, but her part in the opera is much more important than her part in the story, if that doesn't sound too strange.

Kurwenal, correspondingly, is Tristan's older, ever-faithful steward, shield-bearer, bodyguard, the archetypal active, honest chief retainer.

Melot is a false friend to Tristan, a time-serving, opportunistic, fawning, empty man attached to Marke's court, on the make for himself, by no means an asset to his master. Wagner, by the way, has the honesty and courage to write what one might describe as ‘empty’ music to depict this character, much as he uses awful music to depict the awful Beckmesser in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.

Two ordinary people, the Pilot, in the first act, and the Shepherd, in the third, have significant minor roles, somehow setting the other characters in the larger world and marking the passage of real time, rather than leaving them merely mythic figures frozen in their own little space-time niche.

This is not one of those operas, like, say, The Marriage of Figaro, where the physical action is richly complicated and diverting: there is no mistaken identity, no tricksy letter, no subterfuge, no sub-plot, no great surprise, no conformity to any arbitrary restrictions of mundane routine or physical reality. As the story takes its inevitable course, the developments occur in the minds of the principals and, one might say, in the minds of the audience. There are very few theatregoers who remain unmoved by Romeo and Juliet, very few whose view of life and love is not affected by this opera.

The action in the first act is viewed to some extent through the eyes of the Pilot, in the second those of Brangäne, in the third those of the Shepherd, although we also find ourselves sharing Kurwenal's aching anxiety, and through their eyes we are ourselves involved as helpless onlookers as the tragedy inevitably unfolds to its extraordinary, poignant end.

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Words and Music

In terms of scripted action, the story is simple enough:

Act I:

Isolde is furious with Tristan for taking her to marry Marke and for avoiding her since the ship left Ireland. She tells Brangäne to mix a poisoned drink so she can kill Tristan and herself before they arrive. Tristan can avoid her no longer, comes into her quarters, accepts a drink of wine; Isolde drinks too. They look at each other, expecting death, and wonderingly call each others' names. Brangäne had taken things into her own hands and mixed not a real poisoned potion, but a reputed love potion.

The contents of the love potion are irrelevant. They were already in love. Isolde expected death to release her from her love as well as an alliance she does not want. That she is still alive means she cannot escape either. Tristan is in like case. But matters are now worse than they were: they can no longer deny to each other their love for each other. Tristan and Isolde are now emotionally, as well as physically, all at sea. The ship is about to reach the inescapable reality of dry land, but for these two there is now no possibility, ever again, of experiencing reality, lost as they are in the limitless sea of their all-consuming emotions.

Act 2:

Isolde is waiting in the dusk, Marke and his retinue go off hunting, Isolde orders the pre-arranged signal so that Tristan can come and spend the night with her. Brangäne thinks they are hunting Isolde. At the end of the act, the suspicious busybody Melot returns with the confused Marke to catch Isolde and tries to curry favour with his king by attacking Tristan and dispensing summary justice.

What does Marke think he is hunting this moonlit night in Cornwall? The question is irrelevant. One cannot take literally the action or the setting. It is not real night; Tristan and Isolde are not Romeo and Juliet, real people falling upon each other with the desperate joy of physical passion. Rather are they Essential Man and Essential Woman (one might call them Superman and Superwoman, had the terms not become counterfeit currency) in an unearthly dialogue on the nature of love.

And we, the onlookers, perceive it as vitally significant: for most people, love, or its empty husk, is of central importance in our lives. But how can this act work in the theatre, given its essential unreality and its lack of action until the very end?

The secret is in the music, music unlike anything previously imagined, let alone actually heard. In Wagner's hands, the eddying words of the lovers grow into musical currents in a sea of emotions that would swamp them while we watched, were they not its generators. This ‘artistic voyeurism’ might go towards explaining why Wagner and his music are so comprehensively reviled even today (as witness a seriously silly suggestion by a Certain Person on ABC television a few years back when The Ring was on, to the effect that Wagner really wasn't a very nice chap and perhaps one really ought not to admire his work too much).

Until a generation ago, an exploration of intense sexual feelings has been absolutely forbidden intellectual territory. Many in Western society understood that good men only engaged in non-procreative sex in much the same way as they engaged in sneezing, and that good women, properly subservient to their husbands, should properly put up with this connubial hay fever as a regrettable but unavoidable, untidy and physically and psychically rude hazard of the female condition.

Words can express logical ideas or emotions, depending upon how they are used. But some Wagnerians find the text of the second act so extraordinarily compressed as to be almost meaningless without the music. Mastersingers could be performed without the music and would make a passable play, Tristan could not. But the opera is about intense, consuming love; love is not altogether logical and intense love is altogether illogical; music is quintessentially illogical: one should not expect to find too much logic or reality in the second-act love duet, the centre-piece of the whole opera.

Act 3:

We find Tristan, seriously wounded, lying feverishly at his half-ruined castle in Brittany. He and Kurwenal are waiting for Isolde to arrive. The Shepherd keeps watch. At last the ship is seen but Tristan, losing his reason, tears off his bandages, only to die in Isolde's arms. Another ship arrives, with Marke. Kurwenal, defending Tristan, he supposes, attacks and kills Melot and is fatally wounded by him. Brangäne has tried to take responsibility for the tragedy on account of the love-potion, and Marke, intending forgiveness, is forced instead to watch as Isolde dies, in ecstasy now at the thought that she and Tristan can become one.

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Such a bald account takes scant account of the idea of Liebestod, Love-Death, or the music with which Isolde takes her leave of the mundane as, like a drop of water received into the ocean, she achieves Nirvana: for Tristan and Isolde all pain, sorrow and struggle are now over.

Nirvana? It is easy for people consciously or unconsciously influenced by Christianity unthinkingly to categorize the lovers through parody-Christian eyes: these sinners merit a cold and foggy Hell on a rock in the Irish Sea; or these penitent sinners may go to the Anglo-Catholic (Celtic Mystical Chapter) Church's sunny Camelot Heights Estate, North Heaven (King Arthur, Manager). In the Celtic world at this time, Christianity was by no means everywhere dominant. But the old religion is lost, so what are the terms of reference here? Wagner was influenced by Buddhism and it is at least reasonable to approach this idea of Love-Death, that is, the inexorable end of this story, from such a point of view. Whatever the hidden key, it is clear that the purely logical, literal-minded, conventional Western approach is not likely to be much use to us.

Is Act 3 real, or is it all in Tristan's head? That most imaginative director Ponelle said he thought it was a dream of the dying Tristan - in which case it is a double dream, for Tristan must also dream Isolde's dream, the Liebestod, with its psychedelic light-patterns reported to be normal for us all at the point of death.

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Wagner's Unique Art

The first thing one hears in the theatre is the Tristan Prelude, a musical microcosm of what is to happen. But as the whole action is about unresolved emotion, inevitably the Prelude is in psychological and musical senses unresolved. The double resolution only comes at the very end of the opera, at the end of the Liebestod, and you know it in your marrow. This is theatrical wizardry.

But the boxed set of an opera is emphatically not the opera, and this is truer for Wagner than for many other opera composers. Wagner was not just a composer, he was a consummate man of the theatre. Although steeped in the old Classic/Romantic tradition of German theatre, his vision of the world led him to the idea that music-drama should put one's whole inner universe on stage. Some composers liked to show us the nobility we might all be capable of (Fidelio comes to mind). Wagner, on the other hand, a sort of musical Sigmund Freud, shows us what we'd rather keep under wraps, and to the self-satisfied, that is unforgiveable.

Like Dante, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Goethe, Beethoven and Ibsen, other great creators who changed the course of Western culture, Wagner gets right under our guard, with a unique synthesis of music and mythology. Operatic symphonies? Symphonic operas? There's no category big enough to contain them.

If you are going to the Festival production (and Tristan is the best opera ever to be programmed at any Adelaide Festival, so I advise you not to miss it, even if you have to take a bank loan to buy the ticket) - if you are going, you should spend some time reading about it first, listening to some of the music, getting to know the story, and just thinking it over.

In the last analysis, what is Tristan and Isolde about? Transcending emotional limits in the impossible search for perfect love? Perhaps that will do to go on with.

One thing remains certain: the question will still be hotly debated long after the final curtain on the last night of the Festival production. And that fact, the fact of its universal fascination for all with the capacity for wonder at its twilight poignancy, is the hallmark of its greatness.