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Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. First production, Munich, 1865. In the principal parts of this opera Wagner has followed the romance of Gottfried of Strasbung and in the musical portion has perhaps reached the highest summits of his art.


Place, Act I., on board a ship. Act II in Cornwall, at the castles of King Mark. Act III., in Brittany, at Tristan’s castle.

ACT I. A vessel. Tristan has been sent to bring Isolde, the intended bride of King Mark, from Ireland to Cornwall. Isolde and her companion, Brangäne, are seated amidships of the vessel, which is divided by a curtain for privacy. The princess has recognised in Tristan a wounded knight whom she has nursed when wounded, but who has slain her betrothed Marold in combat. She wavers between love and hate, but finally resolves to kill Tristan, and commands Brangäne to prepare a poisoned potion. Isolde’s mother, who was versed in sorcery, has given Brangäne several magic drugs, and by mistake Tristan and Isolde both drink a love potion. They gaze upon each other in wonder, and under the influence of the draught they finally sink into each other’s arms in an ecstasy of love.

ACT II. King Mark’s castle. The king is hunting, and Tristan and Isolde plan to meet in secret. Brangäne warns Isolde against the traitorous and jealous Melot, but Isolde gives the signal to Tristan to draw nigh. A beautiful love duet follows, probably the longest ever written for any opera. The faithful Kurwenal comes to warn Tristan, but it is too late, for he is closely followed by Melot, bringing King Mark and his attendants. The chivalrous Mark, however, despises Melot for his treachery. Tristan draws his sword upon the traitor, but is defeated in the combat and sorely wounded.

ACT III. Tristan’s castle in Brittany. Kurwenal has brought the wounded Tristan to the castle. He grows rapidly worse and Kurwenal sends for Isolde to heal him. A shepherd stands on the ramparts to watch for her ship, the coming of which he announces by a strain on his pipe. When she approaches, Tristan tears the bandages from his wounds in an effort to go to her, and after recognising her by name, dies in her arms. Mark has followed Isolde to unite her to Tristan. Kurwenal, who thinks he has come with evil intent, slays the false Melot and is himself slain. Isolde dies of grief by the side of Tristan, and in sorrow Mark remains in prayer beside the dead.

References and external links: Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.

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