Tristan, a vassal to King Marke, has been charged with ensuring safe passage for the royal bride, Isolde, from Ireland to Cornwall. But Isolde has no desire to place herself in the hands of the man who murdered her first husband, and tries to poison the despised Tristan. However, the magic potions have been switched: instead of a deadly serum, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion. Now they are united in eternal love, at the same time fully aware that King Marke will never countenance their betrothal. This opera represents the culmination of Richard Wagner’s efforts towards achieving a »sonorous silence«: at the very instant when language fails as a means of expression, music takes over to elevate the story to new emotional heights.
Cornwall is obliged to pay tribute to Ireland. When Morold, Isolde’s betrothed, sets out to collect the tribute from Mark’s territory. Tristan, Mark’s nephew, challenges him to a duel. Morold is slain. His severed head is returned to the Irish. Tristan, wounded by Morold’s poisoned sword, is wasting away. Finding no cure in Cornwall, he proceeds incognito as “Tantris” to Ireland. Isolde nurses him. She discovers the splinter she found in Morold’s severed head fits the notch in Tristan’s sword. Determined to avenge his death, she brandishes the sword above the ailing Tristan. Their eyes meet. Healed, Tristan returns to Cornwall. The recent peace between Cornwall and Ireland is to be sealed by the marriage of Mark and Isolde. As Mark’s matchmaker, Tristan escorts Isolde from Ireland.
On the deck of Tristan’s ship at sea between Ireland and Cornwall
Isolde, deeply humiliated, swears the ship is doomed. She sends Brangäne, her confidante, to Tristan. However, Tristan refuses to speak to her. His squire Kurwenal answers by singing a satirical song. To the unsuspecting Brangäne, Isolde discloses her great emotional torment of having been betrayed by Tristan and having to marry the tired old king. Brangäne misunderstands and commends a love potion which helps whoever drinks it to experience fresh raptures of love. However, Isolde is resolved to die and points to the poison. The ship approaches the shores of Cornwall. Kurwenal asks the ladies to prepare themselves. However, Isolde refuses to disembark before Tristan has spoken to her. While Kurwenal reports Isolde’s wish to his master. Isolde orders Brangäne to prepare the poison. Tristan finally arrives. Isolde asks him to drink to conciliation with her. Instead of drinking the expected poison, they both drink the love potion which Brangäne had secretly substituted. While the ship moors an Cornwall’s coast, Tristan and Isolde disclose their love for each other.
King Mark’s castle in Cornwall
While Mark sets off for a night’s hunting with his retinue, Isolde awaits Tristan. Isolde’s turns a deaf ear to Brangäne’s warnings about the courtier Melot and allows Tristan to enter. Both curse the harsh falsehoods of the day which blinded them for so long. They praise the world of night and long for the fulfilment of their love in the hereafter. Mark, alerted by Melot, surprises the lovers. He cannot understand Tristan’s betrayal. Tristan makes Isolde promise to follow him in death and flings himself against Melot’s sword.
Tristan’s castle in Brittany
Kurwenal has fled with the seriously wounded Tristan to his home in Kareol. Tristan awakes on hearing the sad strain of a shepherd’s pipe. Kurwenal has sent for Isolde to come and heal Tristan’s wounds. Delirious, Tristan sees the ship approaching. Isolde appears. Tristan dies. Brangäne has told Mark about the love potion but they arrive too late.
Staging and Set Design
Marco Arturo Marelli
Co-production with the Opéra de Montpellier