"THERE ARE NO BOUNDS TO THE LONGING, THE DESIRE, THE BLISS, AND THE ANGUISH OF LOVE...
The world, power, fame, glory, honor, chivalry, loyalty, friendship...all are swept away. Only one thing is left alive...yearning, yearning, insatiable desire...."
That's how the composer himself described his grand, sweeping paean to ecstasy! David Hockney's blazing sets add even more fire to the tale of forbidden love between the Irish princess betrothed to an English king, and the knight entrusted to deliver her safely to the monarch's shores.
When superstar soprano Deborah Voigt sang her first Isolde in Vienna, the audience stood up and cheered—for an incredible 23 minutes! "Her performance was a triumph...a new Isolde has been born." Andante
When major companies want a major Tristan, they ask for Clifton Forbis, whose potent portrayal is "baronial in timbre and heroic in proportion." Financial Times
Tristan und Isolde
Lyric Opera presentation generously made possible by Mrs. A. Watson Armour, Julie and Roger Baskes, an Anonymous Donor, and Howard A. Stotler.
Production originally created for Los Angeles Opera.
Jan. 27–Feb. 8
Sir Andrew Davis
José María Condemi
*Lyric Opera debut
Marke’s castle, Cornwall
Kareol, Tristan’s ancestral home in Brittany
A sailor’s voice is heard, in a song that the Irish princess Isolde assumes is meant to mock her (Sailor’s Song: Frisch weht der Wind). Isolde’s companion, Brangäne, informs her that the ship will arrive in Cornwall by nightfall. Isolde wishes the winds and waves could destroy the ship and everyone aboard. She orders Brangäne to inform the captain, the knight Tristan, that she wishes to speak with him.
Brangäne goes to Tristan to inform him of Isolde’s wish, which he adamantly refuses to honor, since his duties as captain must take precedence. Tristan’s friend Kurwenal, joined by the sailors, sings a mocking refrain, praising Tristan and insulting Isolde. Brangäne, humiliated, returns to her mistress.
Brangäne’s report on the encounter with Tristan only enrages Isolde further. She finally reveals how this voyage came about (Narrative and Curse: Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen): She had been betrothed to the knight Morold, who was fatally wounded in a duel with Tristan. Having heard of Isolde’s skills in the healing arts, Tristan – who had himself been wounded – came to her, under the name “Tantris.” Isolde learned his real identity, and was about to kill him when the look in his eyes left her unable to strike the blow. She healed him and sent him back to Cornwall. He then persuaded his uncle, King Marke, to seek Isolde’s hand in marriage, and is now escorting her from Ireland to Cornwall for the wedding. Isolde curses Tristan bitterly.
Brangäne emphasizes the pleasure Isolde can anticipate as Marke’s queen, but Isolde can think only of how wretched she will be in Cornwall, living with Tristan near her. Brangäne attributes Isolde’s distress to her concern that Marke may not display the passion she would expect in her bridegroom. The suggestion offered by Brangäne: Isolde should offer Marke a love potion from the casket the princess received from her mother (highly skilled in magic herself) before leaving Ireland.
As the ship draws closer to Cornwall, Kurwenal appears before Isolde to announce that she must ready herself to meet King Marke. Isolde insists that, before she is presented to Marke, Tristan must come to her and make amends for his conduct. Once Kurwenal has gone, Isolde bids a desperate farewell to Brangäne. Having determined to kill both herself and Tristan, she orders Brangäne to prepare the death potion.
When Tristan finally confronts Isolde, she berates him mercilessly for forgetting that she has not forgiven him. He hands her his sword to take his life, if that is indeed her wish. She then proposes to drink the cup of friendship with him. On Isolde’s order, Brangäne brings the cup. Tristan has not yet finished drinking when Isolde seizes it; she drinks the rest of what she assumes is the death potion before flinging the cup aside. She and Tristan are suddenly overwhelmed by passion, and as Marke is hailed by the sailors, Brangäne reveals to the dazed couple that she substituted the love potion.
It is evening, and horns are heard in the distance, indicating to Isolde that she need not fear Marke and his men, who have gone hunting. The distraught Brangäne begs Isolde to be cautious. She urges her to beware of Tristan’s friend Melot, who she believes arranged the hunting trip in order to trap Isolde and Tristan together. Isolde makes light of Brangäne’s anxiety – after all, Melot is Tristan’s dearest friend. She orders Brangäne to extinguish the torch, the signal for Tristan to approach. Within a few moments he is in her arms. They succumb to their ecstasy (Love Duet: Isolde! Tristan!…O sink’ hernieder), despite the warning of Brangäne, who is keeping watch (Warning: Einsam wachend).
The lovers’ joy is brutally interrupted by a scream from Brangäne, and by Kurwenal’s cry to Tristan to save himself. When Marke and his hunters appear, Melot comes forward to denounce Tristan. Marke wonders how Tristan, whom he had admired and dearly loved, could do this to him (Monologue: Tatest du’s wirklich?). Tristan asks Isolde if she will willingly follow him to a land of darkness. She says only that where he goes, she will go as well. Drawing his sword, Melot attacks Tristan, who lets himself be wounded.
Kurwenal is guarding the sleeping Tristan as a shepherd plays a mournful melody on his pipe. The shepherd pauses to ask if Tristan is still asleep. The hero slowly revives, and Kurwenal embraces him joyfully. Realizing where he is, he moves in and out of delirium (Monologue: Dünkt dich das?) as he remembers his childhood, his parents’ deaths, and above all, the beauty of Isolde. Repeatedly he asks Kurwenal if there is a ship approaching, only to be disappointed.
Suddenly, however, Tristan hears the shepherd playing a lively melody, signaling that a ship is indeed on the horizon. Kurwenal sees Isolde on board waving, and Tristan orders Kurwenal to hurry to the shore to greet her. Tearing off his bandages, Tristan staggers to his feet. Isolde rushes in, and Tristan has time only to utter her name one last time before he dies. Isolde bitterly laments being deprived of this final joyful reunion (Aria: So bange Tage) and collapses.
The shepherd warns Kurwenal that another ship is approaching. It brings Brangäne, Marke, and Melot. Rushing in, Melot is stabbed to death by Kurwenal, who takes his own life. As Isolde slowly revives, Marke explains that he had come to give her to Tristan in marriage. Isolde no longer hears him (Liebestod: Mild und leise) and dies, transfigured by her love for Tristan.
Learn more about the opera — read an in-depth article on Tristan und Isolde
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on CD
Recommendations by Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Tristan und Isolde is such an immense undertaking that commercial recording companies don't record it unless they can field a cast and orchestra eminently worthy of the piece. There has never been a genuinely unsatisfactory Tristan recording, although obviously not every principal in the performances mentioned below is on an equally exalted level. Certainly we should be grateful to have on CD not only the sumptuous Isolde of Deborah Voigt (scheduled to sing the role at Lyric in 2008-09) but also the performances of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson as well as Helga Dernesch, Margaret Price (who learned the role specifically to record it with conductor Carlos Kleiber), Christine Brewer, and Nina Stemme. Each of these artists has something individual and memorable to contribute to this endlessly rewarding character and her magnificent music.
The same is true of the Tristans, all of whom are singers of extraordinary vocal fervor and interpretive intelligence. As with Price's Isolde, Plácido Domingo has sung Tristan only on records, and it is revelatory to hear this role sung with that warm, Italianate timbre. It's rare in commercial recordings of Wagner to hear a singer in a major role in performances separated by three decades, but we can hear the very young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's Kurwenal under Furtwängler in 1952 and the same artist, at the height of his mature career, under Kleiber in 1982. The great Christa Ludwig, who sang Brangäne in the legendary 1966 Bayreuth performances under Karl Böhm, is even finer six years later under Karajan.
The conductors stand among the most remarkable musicians of the past six decades. If you listen to this opera specifically for incomparably sumptuous orchestral performance in which the voices are viewed essentially as added instruments in the sonic mix, listen to Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic. For a more humanly scaled performance colored by both superb musical precision and vibrant theatrical excitement, no one is more satisfying than Kleiber leading the Staatskapelle Dresden. For that indefinable electricity that only a live performance can provide, there are Karl Böhm, Christian Thielemann, and Donald Runnicles. And certainly no lover of this work can be without the monumental version led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, long celebrated as one of the greatest performances in the history of recording.
Notes: Recordings are all listed in chronological order, the most recent recording first.
Stemme, Domingo, Fujiwara, Bär, Pape; Royal Opera/Covent Garden, c. Pappano (EMI Classics)
Voigt, Moser, Lang, Weber, Holl; Vienna Staatsoper, c. Thielemann (DG)
Brewer, Treleaven, Peckova, Daniel, Rose; BBC Symphony Orchestra, c. Runnicles (Warner Classics)
Dernesch, Vickers, Ludwig, Berry, Ridderbusch; Berlin Philharmonic, c. Karajan. (EMI)
M. Price, Kollo, Fassbänder, Fischer-Dieskau, Moll; Staatskapelle Dresden, c. C. Kleiber (DG)
Nilsson, Windgassen, Ludwig, Wächter, Talvela; Bayreuth Festival, c. Böhm (DG)
Of special interest
Flagstad, Suthaus, Thebom, Fischer-Dieskau, Greindl; Philharmonia Orchestra, c. Furtwängler. (EMI "Great Recordings of the Century")
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE on DVD
Recommendations by Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Of these estimable performances, most satisfying dramatically is the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, in which Johanna Meier earned a place in Bayreuth history as the first American to sing Isolde there. She is a dream in the role, looking slim and beautiful, giving a wonderfully rounded dramatic portrayal, enunciating the text with authenticity, and singing up a storm. The rest of cast are all superb actors, but only Matti Salminen is a singer on Meier's level. René Kollo, however, gives 150% of himself to Tristan and proves immensely moving in Act Three. The production itself is intensely involving, with numerous images that stay in the mind - for example, in Act One: the first sight of Isolde, seemingly imprisoned in an enormous cape that takes up practically the entire stage floor. Ponnelle's staging of the love duet works as well as any, but the Liebestod is misguided: the entire episode is presented as the dream of the hero, who doesn't expire until the final moments of the opera.
The strengths of the Met's version are in the magisterial portrayals of three principals from Lyric Opera's 2001-02 production: Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner in the title roles and René Pape as King Marke. An unexpected casting choice - Brangäne as a soprano instead of the usual mezzo - pays great dividends in the splendid performance of Katarina Dalayman. James Levine draws spacious playing of the utmost sumptuousness from the Met orchestra.
The other two productions present a notable contrast. The older of the two was captured one night in France in the summer 1973 at the ancient outdoor amphiteater at Orange in 1973. The protagonists are those two supreme interpreters of Wagner repertoire, Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, with Karl Böhm conducting. We're lucky to have any kind of visual record of the soprano and tenor in action in this opera, and they are vocally without equal, but one must make do with amateurish camera work, poor recorded sound, as well as a somewhat primitive and the constant distraction of the leading lady's gowns waving in the night breezes. This could hardly be more different from Glyndebourne: the small house, conceived by a wealthy opera-lover who adored Wagner, made its reputation in Mozart and did not produce a Wagner opera until 2003. Its Tristan was cast with slim voices (the grand-toned Pape excepted), but the work is performed with exceptional intimacy and sensitivity, as directed by an a highly experienced Wagnerian, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, and led by one of the Czech Republic's best conductors, Jiri Belohlavek.
Stemme, Gambill, Karnéus, Skovhus, Pape; London Philharmonic Orchestra, c. Belohlavek, dir. Lehnhoff (Opus Arte)
Eaglen, Heppner, Dalayman, Ketelsen, Pape; Metropolitan Opera, c. Levine, dir. Dorn. (DG)
J. Meier, Kollo, Schwarz, Becht, Salminen; Bayreuth Festival, c. Barenboim, dir. Ponnelle (DG)
Nilsson, Hesse, Vickers, Berry, Rundgren; Orchestre National de RTF, c. Böhm (Kultur)
Backstage at Lyric #43
February 15, 2009
Only singers possessed of Herculean talent and stamina are able to do justice to the title roles of Tristan und Isolde - and Lyric has them! Deborah Voight (Isolde), Clifton Forbis (Tristan) and director José María Condemi join Lyric's Jesse Gram for an intimate discussion of Wagner's epic masterpiece.
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Backstage at Lyric #42
February 14, 2009
Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang is Backstage at Lyric. One of Germany's most outstanding singers, she's making her Lyric Opera debut in a role she's made her own in major opera houses all over the world, Brangäne in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
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Sir Andrew Davis Previews
"There are no bounds to the longing, the desire, the bliss, and the anguish of love. The world, power, fame, glory, honor, chivalry, loyalty, friendship...all are swept away. Only one thing is left alive...yearning, yearning, insatiable desire...." Richard Wagner