Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Love in Tristan und Isolde

Continuing our “love” theme this month on Clef Notes, let’s continue this week by looking at love in several famous operas. Opera lovers know that love is a prevalent theme throughout opera history. This week we will look at just two, saving the many others for future posts.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a famous opera from the mid-nineteenth century that tells the tale of passion between two lovers after they take a love potion. Like many operas, the story ends in death and heart break. For a full synopsis of this dramatic plot, you can go to the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

Wagner began work on Tristan und Isolde in 1857 after he and his wife, Minna, moved into a guest house owned by friends Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. Wagner was at a low point, his Ring cycle still waiting for production and his personal finances strapped. It wasn’t long before Wagner and Mathilde began to have intimate feelings toward one another. These feelings likely remained on an emotional level rather than physical but his passions are clearly displayed in the opening of Tristan, which he was composing at the time of the affair. Once his wife heard of the adulterous relationship, Wagner left her, fleeing to Venice where he continued work on his opera. It wasn’t until 1865 that the work was premiered.

Tristan und Isolde is famously known for the “Tristan” chord which first appears in the opera’s prelude. It is an unresolved chord that creates a sense of longing for the listener—a longing that lasts throughout the entire opera until it is finally resolved when Tristan and Isolde’s love is fulfilled in death. Below you can listen to an orchestral performance of both the Prelude and Liebestod, which appears at the end of the opera. Following that, it’s an actual operatic performance of the Liebestod scene at Bayreuth. Can you hear the “Tristan” chord? Do you agree that it provides a sense of passionate longing the complements the story line? 

Next week, we’ll look at Wagner once again—only in relation to his relations with Cosima von Bulow.

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