Tristan und Isolde
The action begins during a voyage from Ireland to Cornwall.
Before the opera begins
The Cornish knight Tristan, nephew of Cornwall’s King Marke, went to Ireland to stop the tribute Ireland was exacting from Cornwall. In fair combat, Tristan killed Morold, the betrothed of the Irish Princess Isolde. After being deceived into healing Tristan, Isolde realized that he was Morold’s killer. She had the opportunity to destroy him, but she refrained because as she raised his sword to strike him dead, she saw how he looked up at her, and fell in love with him because of his tender beseeching glance. He left her, but returned eventually to ask for her hand in marriage—not for himself, but for the childless King Marke. (By finding Marke a bride, Tristan hoped to quiet rumors that he was plotting to usurp Marke’s throne.) To end the feud with Cornwall, Isolde’s parents gladly agreed to have their daughter marry King Marke.
Tristan is bringing Isolde from Ireland to his uncle in Cornwall. Tristan can’t explain his actions to Isolde and has refused to speak to her. Her rage knows no bounds. She tells her attendant Brangäne of Tristan’s treachery and then sends word that she will only allow him to present her to Marke if Tristan first comes to see her. She orders Brangäne to prepare a death potion for Tristan and her. When Tristan comes, he senses the drink is poisonous—and welcomes it. As the two wait for the poison to take effect, they confess their love with abandon. A confused Isolde asks Brangäne what the potion was. Brangäne replies that she substituted a love potion for the death potion. The stunned lovers wait helplessly as King Marke boards the ship.
At King Marke’s castle, Isolde begs Brangäne to extinguish the torch, whose light signals Tristan that it is not safe to approach. Isolde disregards Brangäne’s warning that Marke’s hunt that night is a trap to catch Tristan and Isolde together. She and Tristan greet each other ecstatically and eagerly welcome the world of Night—the world of passion and ecstasy—while trying forever to avoid the Day, in which their responsibilities separate them. Brangäne warns them in vain to be careful. Just as the lovers’ passion rises to climax, Tristan’s supposed-friend Melot arrives with Marke to find Tristan and Isolde together. Neither of the two tells Marke of their history, even though the king begs Tristan to explain. Instead of answering, Tristan asks Isolde if she will follow him into the world of Night. She agrees; Tristan challenges Melot. So as to finally be released from the agony of Day, he allows himself to be wounded by Melot.
Tristan lies wounded at Kareol, his family home in Brittany, where his loyal servant Kurwenal has brought him. When Tristan awakens, he tells of how Isolde summoned him back to Day; when he finds out that Kurwenal has sent for her, he is ecstatic. He imagines her arriving and collapses. He curses the drink that kept Isolde and him from dying. When he hears that her ship is about to land on shore, he curses the light and ecstatically pulls off his bandages before she can reach him. Isolde arrives only to have him call out her name as he dies. Marke, having been told the truth by Brangäne, arrives with Melot to forgive Tristan and Isolde. Kurwenal mistakenly construes Marke’s approach as vengeful, kills Melot, and dies defending Tristan’s body. Marke laments the death all around him, but Isolde hears none of this. She describes the ascent of Tristan’s soul and the waves sweeping around her. Transfigured, she is finally released to join Tristan in death.
Read the Director's Notes