Tristan und Isolde
In this instalment we take a look at Wagner's great love story.
In the videos below, opera expert Alexandra Coghlan meets writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry to discuss his love for the piece, and Artistic Director Stephen Langridge and conductor Robin Ticciati explain why Glyndebourne is the perfect place to enjoy the opera.
So sit back and take five minutes to fall in love with Tristan und Isolde…
A brief introduction
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) is arguably the most influential work not just in the history of opera but classical music. Often described as the start of modern music, it reinvented the rules of harmony, becoming a touchstone and centre of musical gravity, either drawing composers towards it in helpless imitation, or forcing them to fight to reject it. No one could be neutral in response to it.
Bound in marriage against her will, princess Isolde resolves to end her life along with that of her enemy, the knight Tristan. But when a love potion is substituted for poison, the two are drawn into an all-consuming, obsessive love affair that destroys everything – and everyone – in its unstoppable path.
For the first time here harmony and psychology are one. The whole score is a metaphor for unfulfilled desire, unfolding in a single continuous musical gesture, a ‘terrible and sweet infinity’ as Nietzsche described it. Harmonic tension established in the famous ‘Tristan Chord’ in the opera’s opening bars is never fully resolved until the end – a deferral of gratification that gives the opera its charged, uneasy sense of momentum, of desire always yearning (but never quite attaining) fulfilment.
What to expect on stage
Due to current COVID-19 restrictions it is not possible to stage the Nikolaus Lenhoff production of Tristan und Isolde as originally intended, but thanks to some clever re-arranging we will be presenting a semi-staged production.
As our Managing Director Sarah Hopwood explained in a recent Reuters interview, reducing the size of the orchestra to socially distance the pit “really didn’t seem to make sense” for an opera of this scale. Instead, the full orchestra will be performing on stage, with the singers in front, and an off-stage chorus.
This will be a different experience to seeing the Lenhoff production, but just as musically electrifying.
A great moment to look out for
Isolde’s Liebestod (Love-death) ‘Mild und leise’ is some of the most sensual music in all of opera – a musical transfiguration. Here Isolde, after Tristan’s death, sings of her vision of a transfigured Tristan, free from sorrow and suffering, miraculously restored to life, surrounded by beautiful music. He smiles back at her from a spiritual realm where she will soon join him.
The music of the Act II love-duet returns here but transformed into something calmer, slower and more mystical. Isolde’s hallucinatory fantasy continues and intensifies until she collapses dead next to her lover – their eternal union finally attained in death. Finally the tensions and questions of the ‘Tristan Chord’ we first heard over four hours earlier are resolved in what Richard Strauss described as, ‘The most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the history of music’.
Cast and creative team
Robin Ticciati / Karen Cargill in Pelléas et Mélisande (Festival 2018. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)
Glyndebourne’s Music Director Robin Ticciati fulfils a long-held ambition to conduct Wagner at Glyndebourne with this revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s classic staging. Rising star Finnish soprano Miina-Liisa Värelä, who has made waves across Europe over the past few seasons in Strauss and Wagner roles, makes her Festival debut as Isolde. Praised by critics for the ‘remarkable variety of colours’ in her voice, and for her ‘musically perceptive’ performances, this young singer is one to watch. She’s partnered by celebrated New Zealand Heldentenor Simon O’Neill as Tristan – a ‘thrilling’ performer, whose ‘complete control and musicianship’ is balanced by a voice of ‘arresting size and power’.
Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill makes a welcome return to the Festival as Brangane, with American bass John Relyea (‘Surely one of the most beautiful voices to be heard today’ – Opera News) as King Mark.
Set the spotlight back on our world-class productions
Help light the way for the return of our Festival season. Be part of the dedicated group of supporters who bring Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde back to our stage.
Miss Myriam Trevaux Charitable Trust with a Syndicate and Circle of individuals
Main image: © Tom Hammick. All rights reserved, DACS 2021