93. Tristan und Isolde (Richard Wagner)

Composer & libretto: Richard Wagner

First performed: Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, Munich, 10 June 1865

My friend Phil has just posted his review of Tristan und Isolde.  (The poor bastard.)

Here’s one I made earlier, as they say on Blue Peter.

I expect death threats by evening; let me warn you that I am fully armed (and sometimes legged, too).

Oh, and this is apparently my 100th post.

1 star

“Seeing Tristan is a once in a lifetime thing,” my father said as we stumbled out into the daylight.  (Wonderful Day!  Sunlight, warmth!)  “I never want to hear it again in my life.”

It reminded him of why he stopped reading mediaeval literature.

“Everything is an allegory, and a clumsy, clod-hopping one at that.”

Day, Wagner tells us, is deceitful and false, because it’s the realm of the real world (which is an illusion); Night is true, because it’s the realm of death and oblivion.

“Wagner’s problem is that he never grew up.  It’s adolescent.  It’s the pretentious, pseudo-philosophy of a 15-year-old.”

Tristan and Isolde’s ambition in life is to die.  Only in death, they believe, can they consummate their love.

The problem with being dead is, you’re dead.  That makes consummating your love awfully hard.

(And that which needs to be awfully hard to consummate love has decomposed.  Oh, look; the end’s fallen off.)

The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.  Dead people don’t roll around the crypt, having hot dead sex; they lie there and rot.  Still, whatever makes them happy.

Tristan and Isolde don’t have free will; they drink a magic potion which makes them fall in love (a sort of mediaeval oxytocin).  Under its influence, they express their feelings in the sort of gushing, perfumed prose that would make Barbara Cartland blench.

How our hearts are borne aloft!  How all our senses pulsate with bliss!  Longing devotion’s burgeoning blossoms, yearning love’s blessed glow!  My heart bursting with exultant delight!  Isolde!  Tristan!  Broken free of the world, won for me!  You my only awareness, utmost rapture of love!

Here’s Wagner’s summary:

Thanks to the potion, the passion of Tristan and Isolde suddenly flares up and they have to confess mutually that they belong only to each other.  And now there are no bounds to the longing, the desire, the bliss and the anguish of love.  The world, power, fame, glory, honour, chivalry, loyalty, friendship are all swept away like chaff, an empty dream.  Only one thing is left alive: yearning, yearning, insatiable desire, ever reborn – languishing and thirsting; the sole release—death, dying, extinction, never more to awaken!  …  Is it the bliss of renouncing life, of being no more, of a last redemption into that wondrous realm from which we stray the furthest when we strive to enter it by force.  Shall we call it death?  Or is it not the wondrous world of night, whence—so the story goes—an ivy and a vine sprang up in locked embrace over the grave of Tristan and Isolde?

Another translation reads:

Desire, desire, unquenchable and ever freshly manifested longing, — thirst and yearning.  One only redemption.  — Death sinking into oblivion, the sleep from which there is no awaking! It is the ecstasy of dying, of the giving up of being, of the final redemption into that wondrous realm from which we wander furthest when we strive to take it by force.  Shall we call this Death? Is it not rather the wonder-world of Night, out of which, so says the story, the ivy and the vine sprang forth in tight embrace, o’er Tristan and Isolde’s tomb?

Tristan and Isolde expound their philosophy of life in a gargantuan love duet.  I say “love duet”; they sing abstract nouns at each other, and regurgitate undigested and indigestible bits of Schopenhauer.

Which would all be very well if one agreed with Schopenhauer; I don’t.  Life is suffering?  We live in the worst of all possible worlds?  Happiness is merely the absence of pain, frustration, and dissatisfaction?  And having children is a moral crime?  He must have been fun at parties – if he’d ever gone to any, rather than being a total recluse.

Besides, all this introspecting and philosophizing is awfully boring.  I’d rather explore the world than renounce it or speculate about it; riding a motorbike through the crowded streets of Mumbai is a hell of a lot more fun!

Granted, “O sink hernieder” [1] is lovely to hear – but what lyrics!  They start as high-flown gibberish and descend into a dream of narcissistic death.  It’s poisonous rubbish.

[1] Lit. “There’s a sink down here.”  Tristan’s concern with his plumbing explains why he spends more time talking than doing (or screwing).

Here are some of the juicy bits:

I: For how long away!  Away for so long!

T: How far yet so near!  So near yet how far!

I: O enemy of friends, evil distance!  Drawn-out time’s lingering expanse!

T: O distance and nearness, sternly parted!  Sweet nearness!  Desolate distance!

I: You in darkness, I in light!

I: There to pledge to you eternal love, to consecrate you to Death in company with myself

T: Through Death’s portals wide and open it flowed towards me, opening up the wondrous realm of Night, where I had only been in dreams.  From the image in my heart’s sheltering cell it repelled day’s deceiving beams, so that in darkness my eyes might serve to see it clearly.

TOGETHER: Descend O Night of love, grant oblivion that I may live; take me up into your bosom, release me from the world!

T: Let Day give way before death!  (Laß den Tag dem Tode weichen!)

T: Thus might we die, that together, ever one, without end, never waking, never fearing, namelessly enveloped in love, given up to each other, to live only for love!

I (dreamily) Let me die! (Laß mich sterben!)

TOGETHER: O eternal Night, sweet Night!  Gloriously sublime Night of love!  Those whom you have embraced, upon whom you have smiled, how could they ever waken without fear?  Now banish dread, sweet death, yearned for, long for death-in-love!  In your arms, consecrated to you, sacred elemental quickening force, free from the peril of waking!

TOGETHER: Ever endless self-knowing; warmly glowing heart, love’s utmost joy!

That’s true love right there.  None of this sentimental nonsense about wanting to live happily ever after (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), but a healthy, robust drive towards death.

If only they’d died in the first act, they’d have made themselves much happier – and the audience too.

Unfortunately, in Act III Tristan’s still not dead.  Oh, this emo poster-boy’s yearning for “divine, eternal, utter oblivion”, but he’s still in the world of the living.  That makes him unhappy, as he tells the audience at great length.

Yearning!  Yearning!  While dying yearn, but not to die of yearning!  Never dying, yearning, calling out for the peace of death to the far-away physician.

I’m irresistibly reminded of Patience.

It’s like being collared by a drunk who wants to pour out his litany of woe into your ear.

“I’ve had an awful life, me.  My mum died when I was born, and things have gone downhill ever since.”

(Presumably the bandaged form on his roof is his mummy.)

Then comes the good news: Isolde is on her way to heal his wounds.  Joy and rapture!  Tristan’s so excited he tears open his wound, and staggers about the stage, spurting blood all over the place.

With bleeding wound I once battled with Morold, with bleeding wound I now pursue Isolde!  [(Tears the dressing from his wound.)]  Ah, my blood!  Cheerily flow, my blood!  She who my wound will finally heal, like a hero approaches, she approaches, my salvation!  Let the world perish before my rejoicing haste!

His corpuscles are strewn across the stage, but he lasts long enough to die in Isolde’s arms.  Isolde is distraught.

May I not utter my lament to you?  Just once, ah!  Just once more!

Utter her lament?  Just once?  She’s been doing nothing else all the opera.

Ah, but at least there’s the Liebestod, Hollywood’s favorite go-to piece for tragic love.  It’s a wonderful piece of music.  I never realized how wonderful until I sat through the whole opera.  It means the end of the wretched thing.

Five hours of unrelieved angst, with half an hour of music and long stretches of arid tunelessness.  No wonder Wagner had trouble getting his operas (I beg his pardon, “music dramas”) put on!

Heard out of context, it sounds like a cat mewling.

Look at the lyrics of the Liebestod.

Are they gentle aerial waves ringing out clearly, surging around me?  Are they billows of blissful fragrance?  As they seethe and roar about me, shall I breathe, shall I give ear!  Shall I drink of them, plunge beneath them?  Breathe my life away in sweet scents?  In the heaving swell, in the resounding echoes, in the universal stream of the world-breath – to drown, to founder – unconscious – utmost rapture!

Utmost nonsense.  What exactly is “the universal stream of the world-breath”?  Does it need mints, or does it affect the climate?  And do “gentle aerial waves” give good reception?

Still more people die: Tristan and Isolde’s servants, a wicked courtier named Melot, and (in this production) a whole host of supers.

At the end, there are even more bodies onstage than at the end of Hamlet.

This is a tragedy, and the more corpses the more tragic.  Yes, my heart was broken when Non-Speaking Soldier Second on the Right was stabbed in the brisket.

Wagner wrote a youthful tragedy in which so many characters snuffed it he had to bring them back as ghosts.  We’re spared Tristan and Isolde’s spectral apparition.  Presumably they were too busy consummating their extinction.

At the café I went to later, they placed Otello’s farewell to arms; the Triumphal March from Aida; Beethoven’s Ninth; and one of Mozart’s piano concerti.

The rest is silence.

10 thoughts on “93. Tristan und Isolde (Richard Wagner)

  1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! This was so funny! If I wasn’t already in a great mood this would seriously have lifted my spirits. I was wondering if any opera was going to get a one-star. Also congrats on the 100th post!

    I guess since I only know about a dozen words of German I was spared knowledge of what the libretto is actually about. It is rather awful, and I agree, Wagner does seem to be acting like a 15 year old, although I think I wrote better stuff than this at 15! This was rather emo. And you are right, Wagner completed this thing six years before it was finally performed. Originally it was to be given in Vienna, but the rehearsals were a disaster and it was withdrawn. I know that it does have a position of sorts in the development of “modern music” but that wasn’t inevitable. Gesualdo used chromaticism in Madrigals in the early 1600s, but he wrote them for his own pleasure. Heck, Weber uses chromaticism in Euryanthe, even Verdi in the 1840s as did Wagner in Tannhauser! If Tristan had just sat around dormant for decades, it might have ended up like Die Feen and few would be the wiser. The fact remains, this opera is known for some of its parts rather than the sum of its parts.

    I like how you attacked the libretto more so than the music, as I did the exact opposite. Oh, and the mummy reference!


    1. Thanks! I tend to take the proverbial when I really don’t like something; at least I can get *some* fun out of it!

      TalkClassical, though, was furious (and with the Ring post). I was verbally stoned for blasphemy.

      You’re in a great mood after listening to Tristan? Yikes!

      One-star operas would be this, D’Indy’s anti-Jewish operas, maybe Nixon in China, Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen.

      And there’s chromaticism in Meyerbeer, too!

      You’re not going to listen to the Ring, I hope!


      1. No, I was in a great mood last night after watching a bunch of YouTube video reviews of movie musical.

        No, but I was listening to the first act of Siegfried earlier in the week for some reason. But no, no review of the Ring Cycle.

        And yes, Meyerbeer uses chromaticism as well!


      2. Which musical?

        I think you’re wise not to tackle the Ring. The true Wagnerite, though, follows up Tristan by listening to Meistersinger. (I suggested that Benvenuto Cellini would be a better antidote…)


      3. Man, Wagnerites are washed, they even watch the 10 operas in chronological order. That is just creepy. It must at some point get boring to just listen to the same ten operas. I can’t imagine that! I know Wagner wrote some long operas, but it shouldn’t take very long for 50 hours of music to get stale.

        Oh, actually a bunch of musicals, but specifically The King and I. I sometimes like to watch Musical Hell or Nostalgia Critic (although the last is a little crude for me, guns, vulgarity). I usually stick to more kid-friendly material because I find it funnier. I’m really not into more edgy stuff because I prefer to laugh. I think eventually I was watching a review of Sailor Moon at like 2 am. Unfortunately I laughed so hard last night that I’ve been coughing all day today.


      4. I think you and I might be the oddities here! From what I’ve seen on TalkClassical, most opera lovers a) listen for the singers, rather than the work or the composer; b) like to hear the same operas again and again (and again!), and compare performances. I like more variety, myself!

        Rodgers & Hammerstein are fun. I don’t know Musical Hell, Nostalgia Critic, or Sailor Moon. (Is it like South Pacific or On the Town?) I know opera a lot more than musical theatre, but I enjoy Sondheim, Cabaret, Chicago, and Fiddler on the Roof. Have you read Ethan Mordden’s Anything Goes?

        I saw The Lion King on Broadway last year. Visually spectacular! It is, of course, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, combining music, theatre, and dance – and its message of the circle of life is exactly the same as Parsifal’s doctrine of reincarnation.


      5. No, the things I mentioned are actually channels on YouTube, not works. Except that Sailor Moon is actually a Japanese children’s anime series from the 1990s.

        Interesting about Lion King, I never saw it as having similarities to Parsifal!

        I do have likes and dislikes among singers, but you are right that I don’t listen to opera specifically for specific singers, at least not usually. This might explain why I have such a small following.


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