Introducing... Tristan und Isolde
A look at Wagner's great love story.
In the video 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…
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.
Why not to miss it
Premiered in 2003 – the first production of Wagner ever to be staged at Glyndebourne – Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Tristan und Isolde has since become one of the Festival greats. It returns this year for the first time in over a decade. The Telegraph described it as, ‘More beautiful and moving than any I have ever witnessed’, and a ‘perfect realisation’ of the opera. Other critics have praised its ‘intimate’ and ‘reflective’ character, offering a ‘spiritual rather than erotic’ take on this powerful love story, full of interiority, stillness and meditation.
The combination of Roland Aeschlimann’s exquisite, abstract designs and Andreas Schmidt-Futterer’s medieval-inspired costumes give the drama a timeless quality – a visual canvass full of suggestions, allusions, possibilities.
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
Karen Cargill and Miina-Liisa Värelä in 2021’s semi staged Tristan und Isolde (Photo by Richard Hubert Smith)
Praised for his ‘fine conducting’ (The Guardian) and ‘impeccable rapport’ with his musicians (The Times) in our 2021 semi-staged production, Glyndebourne Music Director Robin Ticciati returns to conduct the fully staged version. Rising star Finnish soprano Miina-Liisa Värelä, hailed as ‘one of the evening’s vocal revelations’ by The Stage in 2021, returns as Isolde. She’s partnered by one of the great Tristans of his generation: Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, whose ‘ringing tone’ and ‘magnetic stage presence’ make for a ‘noble’ and ‘heroic’ (The Times) performance.
‘Outstanding’ (OperaWire) Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill makes a welcome return to the Festival as Brangane, with ‘top-tier Wagnerian Bass’ (Interlude HK) Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke.
Public booking opens on 3 March 2024.
Image credits: Main image – Photography by Mira Nedyalkova. Art direction & design by Ollie Winser