If one had to choose only one work to personify Love, a sentiment that has nourished and delighted opera and, during the Romantic era, irrigated its flesh and blood, it is likely that Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner would best fill the role. Starting with a rather simple story, reduced to include only its essential characters, Wagner sets another plot in motion, an inner drama centred on the passion of Tristan and Isolde. Tristan and Isolde’s love is more than a mere anecdote. Behind the lover’s smouldering eyes and impatient flesh, their ecstatic contemplation of each other aspires to a union that can only exist in the afterlife. By probing the depths of the night, love and death, Wagner explores the mystic incarnation of unadulterated passion. It is the most full-blooded opera in the repertoire and the apotheosis of musical drama.
When Tristan brings princess Isolde on his ship to Cornwall, where she is to marry his uncle, King Marke, she becomes irritated by his apparent indifference to her. In fact they are passionately in love, but their relationship is doomed. By substituting a love potion for the poison Isolde and Tristan intend to drink, Brangäne only revives their love and it is in this ecstatic state that they arrive in Cornwall. Despite Isolde’s marriage to Marke, the lovers' passion secretly unfolds, until one day they are discovered. Marke feels betrayed and becomes distraught at Tristan's behaviour. Mortally wounded by Melot, King Marke’s vassal, who Kurwenal, Tristan’s servant, kills in turn, Tristan dies in Isolde’s arms. The princess collapses beside her deceased lover and they are reunited in their “love death”, the only possible outcome for their mystic union.
Aboard his ship, Tristan, and his servant Kurwenal, are bringing the Irish princess Isolde to Cornwall, where she has been promised in marriage to King Marke. While the pair are passionately in love with each other, Isolde is annoyed by Tristan's feigned indifference to her. She explains to her maid, Brangäne, the hopeless state of their relationship.
Isolde orders Brangäne to prepare a deadly brew for Tristan and her to drink, but the maid replaces the poison with a love potion. As the lovers drink, convinced they will surely die, they are consumed with relentless love.
During a royal hunt, Tristan and Isolde secretly meet in the castle, while Brangäne keeps watch. Isolde is now married to King Marke. A feverish duet ensues, during which the lovers revel in their passion and declare that only in the long night of death can they be eternally united.
Brangäne warns Tristan and Isolde that the night is ending, but the lovers forget about the world around them. They are surprised by King Marke, who has suddenly returned. In a poignant monologue, Marke expresses his dismay at being betrayed by Tristan.
Melot, King Marke’s vassal, mortally wounds Tristan. Kurwenal watches over him as he slowly perishes, suffering as well from Isolde's absence. When the princess finally arrives, it is too late and Tristan dies in her arms. Only in the long night of death can Isolde join Tristan in his Liebestod or "love death".
Excerpt : « Mild und Leise »