Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.
The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.
Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.
In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.
In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.
As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.
In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”
This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.
The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.
It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?
Fatal Passion in Context
The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.
Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.
Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.
How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde
When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.