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Tristan und Isolde: two short essays

How Tristan und Isolde (almost) went down to Rio

Peter Bassett

In 1857 Richard Wagner was in exile in Zürich and in dire financial straits. His publishers and potential patrons were losing patience with the seemingly endless Ring project. He was unable to return to any of the German kingdoms and principalities because of a warrant for his arrest after the failed Dresden revolution of 1849, and he was desperate to find a patron.

In March 1857 he received a communication from Dr Ernest Ferreira-França, Brazil’s Consul-General in Dresden and son of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and loyal subject of the Emperor Dom Pedro II (Gonzaga de Bragança e Borbón). The letter invited Wagner to settle in Rio de Janeiro and write and perform his operas there. Ferreira-França wrote:

“I am an admirer of both your musical and literary works, and knowing that you are in Zürich and perhaps now with nothing to keep you in Europe at this moment, the idea occurred to me of a relationship between you and my country. I have in mind bringing together southern charm and the great talent that no one can deny you. I thought you might be interested in travelling to Brazil, whose capital, Rio de Janeiro, as you might know, has a very well established Italian opera house, where your works could be presented and where you would undoubtedly find support and protection in the person of the Emperor, a zealous protector of arts and letters. I take hereafter the liberty of consulting you about it and, if you agree, I shall write within the next 24 hours to the present board of the Rio de Janeiro Lyric Theatre to convey your wishes.”

The letter continued:
“It has come to my knowledge that you are finishing a great work, whose title is worthy of its author, The Nibelungs. If you want to dedicate this new opera to my Emperor, with pleasure I shall convey your wish to His Majesty, whose qualities and skills are above any praise. In this case, your application must be accompanied by a copy of all your musical and poetic works. I hope you excuse the liberty I have taken and accept the expression of high esteem with which I have the honour to be your humble servant.”

Wagner was intrigued (why wouldn’t he be!) and, with nothing to lose, he decided to move to Brazil – if the Consul-General proved true to his word. In further correspondence he revealed his intention to dedicate Tristan und Isolde to the Emperor, having set aside his Ring project after the second Act of Siegfried. In his autobiography, Wagner later wrote: “The old and ever-recurring inclination revived, and I thought of Tristan und Isolde”. In fact, he had been thinking seriously about Tristan since October 1854 when he had first written a prose sketch inspired by his reading of the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He sent Dr Ferreira-França expensively bound editions of the vocal scores of three of his earlier operas – Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin – and wrote to Liszt that he was prepared to dedicate Tristan und Isolde to the Emperor of Brazil and stage the first performance in Rio de Janeiro in Italian – the language of the Imperial Opera and the language in which most operas were sung all over the world in those days.

Wagner’s interest in the ‘Brazilian option’ was bolstered by the fact that his friend and fellow-revolutionary, the architect Gottfried Semper whose Dresden Court Theatre had witnessed the first performances of Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser, submitted a design in a competition for the proposed new Opera House in Rio de Janeiro. Wagner had kept in touch with Semper while they were both in exile and, in 1855 he persuaded him to come to Zürich to take up a professorial appointment at the university there. By luring Semper to Zürich, Wagner had hoped to involve him in the design of a unique theatre for Der Ring des Nibelungen, when that ambitious work finally came to fruition. But by 1856 the Ring was on ‘hold’. Wagner and Semper discussed the Brazilian theatre project. “Semper entered for it” wrote Wagner, “and produced some splendid plans, which gave us a good deal of enjoyment.” Unfortunately, nothing came of the competition, largely because of the costs involved.

But for the reluctance of the Emperor’s ministers to embark on an extravagant theatre-building project (an obstacle that Wagner’s later royal patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria would also encounter), the composer’s most revolutionary work would have received its first performance in Brazil as Tristano e Isotta – and Richard Wagner might well have spent the rest of his life in the Southern Hemisphere!

Wagner heard no more about an opera commission. However, many years later, in 1876, Dom Pedro II attended the first performance of the Ring at Bayreuth. Composer and Emperor finally met, and Wagner learned that the Emperor’s interest in his work had indeed been genuine.

Wagner had soldiered on in 1857, with Otto Wesendonck in Zürich coming to his immediate rescue. Act One of Tristan was completed in Zürich in August that year, Act Two in Venice (where he had to fend off extradition attempts by the Saxon Government) and Act Three in Luzern. The last note was written on 6 August 1859.

The possibility of a performance in Paris beckoned in 1860 but the scandalous reception and early withdrawal of Tannhäuser the following year put paid to that. In 1861, preparations began in Vienna, only to be abandoned after seventy-seven rehearsals amidst rumours of the work’s un-performability. In May 1864, with ruin and a debtors’ prison looming, Wagner was tracked down by the eighteen-year-old Ludwig II of Bavaria who offered to do everything in his power to help him. The young King was as good as his word and the first performance of Tristan und Isolde took place at the Court theatre in Munich on 10 June 1865.


The ever-changing imagery of Tristan und Isolde

Peter Bassett

Stories that stand the test of time tend to be simple ones dealing with primal emotions and dilemmas, and few are simpler than the tale of ‘Tristan and Isolde’ as Wagner conceived it. In fact, it can be told in a single sentence. A young man is sent to fetch a bride for his uncle, but the young man and the bride-to-be fall passionately in love, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to reconcile their separate existences with an all-consuming passion for one another. That, at least, is the narrative framework.

This apparently simple story has been depicted in many ways, as generation after generation has sought to claim it for themselves. A century and a half ago, King Ludwig II of Bavaria decorated the walls of Neuschwanstein Castle with depictions of the tale. The characters appear in pseudo-medieval poses but remain unmistakably figures of the nineteenth century. In eighteenth-century paintings and engravings, Tristan and Isolde were often depicted in clothing and hairstyles typical of Mozart’s time, yet nobody seemed to find that odd. The 2006 movie Tristan and Isolde, made by English film producer Ridley Scott, had all the trappings of a medieval romance, but the young lovers on the screen would not have been out of place in a modern television ‘soapie’.

We tend to think that the use of contemporary dress in period dramas is a modern innovation, but contemporary dress on stage was the norm up until the mid-nineteenth century. We need only look at costume designs for the operas of Lully and Rameau at the French court theatres of the seventeenth century, to see ancient Greek gods and heroes dressed in curly wigs, lace cravats and buckled shoes. 

The great innovation of Wagner’s day was to work towards an integrated type of theatre in which visual authenticity and convincing acting played equal parts. Wagner would eventually label it Gesamtkunstwerk – complete work of art. It was a revolutionary idea, promoted by the English actor Charles Kean for his Shakespearean productions in the 1850s and by Duke Georg of Saxe-Meiningen with his Meiningen ensemble of the 1860s, and it influenced Wagnerian production styles. Today, nineteenth century designs are regarded as old fashioned, but they were cutting edge at the time.

Tristan’s premiere in Munich in June 1865 repudiated everything to do with Meyerbeerian spectacle and superficiality. It sacrificed physical activity to psychology and inner development. Wagner even labelled Tristan und Isolde a ‘drama’ or ‘performance’ rather than an opera.

A fifteenth-century miniature painting of the ancient tale has survived, but even its details are anachronistic because the earliest recorded version of the story dates from the twelfth century. Written down in Anglo-Norman around 1150 AD, possibly for Eleanor of Aquitaine, it has been attributed to the poet Thomas of Britain. The German poet Gottfried von Strassburg acknowledged Thomas as the source of his material. Gottfried’s Middle High German romance of about 1210 was Wagner’s basic source, although the composer used it selectively and changed details when it suited him. The story had its roots in even earlier, Breton versions. The Kingdom of Brittany had close links with Cornwall, and both lands feature in Wagner’s drama.    

An early depiction of the story is to be found on a fourteenth-century French ivory casket, showing Tristan and Isolde at a fountain, with King Mark spying on them through the foliage. There is also a thirteenth-century floor tile from the ruins of Chertsey Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Surrey, which shows Tristan and King Mark exchanging kisses while holding each other’s chins! This is a kiss of fealty, cementing Tristan’s loyalty to his uncle, and the king’s decision to name Tristan as his heir. Because it came from a religious building, we can assume that the tile drew a parallel with the kiss given by Judas to Jesus before he betrayed him, just as Tristan would betray King Mark.

By the time the story had come into the hands of Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan’s mother had died giving birth to her son after her husband had been killed in battle, circumstances to which Tristan refers in Act Three of Wagner’s work. In this respect, Tristan has something in common with Siegfried and Parsifal. Orphans, it seems, are destined for rather special lives. The child is named ‘Tristan’ after the French word ‘triste’, meaning ‘sad’. The boy is abducted and taken to sea and is eventually put ashore in Cornwall. He ends up at the court of King Marke where he is revealed as the king’s nephew and heir. Cornwall, at that time, was obliged to pay tribute to Ireland – tribute collected by the Irish King’s brother, Morold. In Wagner’s version, Morold is referred to as Isolde’s betrothed, not her uncle. Tristan challenges Morold to a duel and kills him but is wounded by Morold’s poisoned sword. In order to seek a cure, Tristan then travels to Ireland incognito (under the anagrammatic name ‘Tantris’) and contrives to get himself cured by the Irish Queen Isolde – ‘Isolde the Wise’. Just to confuse things, there are three women named Isolde in Gottfried’s account. Wagner combines them all into a single ‘Isolde’.

Composers such as Robert Schumann were tempted to embrace many of the complicated sub-plots within the old story (Schumann did not pursue his plans for an opera about Tristan). However, Wagner, being the superlative dramatist that he was, cut through the thicket of irrelevant material and got to the heart of the matter. 

“I have rejected the exhaustive detail which an historical poet is obliged to employ to clarify the outward development of the plot to the detriment of a lucid exposition of its inner motives”, he said. “I trusted myself to the latter alone. Life and death, the whole meaning and existence of the outer world, here hang on nothing but the inner movements of the soul. The whole decisive action materialises when the innermost soul demands it.”




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