Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Richard Wagner (22.05.1813 – 13.02.1883) was a German composer, of the romantic period, who is chiefly known for his operas, and a notable conductor. Wagner is somewhat unique in that he wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. It could be said that  Wagner was one of the most significant figures in the history of opera. Through his music dramas he introduced extraordinary innovations that transformed the course of music. His major works include The Flying DutchmanTannhäuserLohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, and his great four great related operas that form The Ring of the Nibelung.

Tristan und Isolde is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner in 1859 to a German libretto written by himself but based largely on the 12th-century romance Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. This opera, described by Wagner as as ‘the most audacious and original work of my life’, is a landmark in Western music due to its daring use of harmony and its portrayal of extreme emotions. In brief outline, the plot is as follows:

Tristan and Isolde have fallen in love – but Tristan has promised that Isolde will marry his uncle, King Marke. Isolde offers Tristan a deathly potion. Rather than bring death, it binds them still closer together. After her marriage to Marke, Isolde continues to meet Tristan in secret. One night they are betrayed, and Tristan allows himself to be wounded. King Marke permits the lovers to be reunited, but too late. Tristan dies on Isolde’s arrival and Isolde withdraws from the world.

We have chosen a live Bayreuth performance of distinction dating back to 1996. It is conducted by the late Karl Böhm, then aged 72, and is full of passion and energy. It boasts a fine cast¹ including Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson who are both outstanding in the roles of Tristan and Isolde. Re-mastered and available in 24bit, 96kHz the sound is just fine.

Stream on Spotify or buy from Amazon.

For those who wish to see the action as well as hear it we recommend another, more recent performance from Bayreuth (1983) again on Deutsche Grammophon. This production has truly beautiful sets, designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and is filmed using six cameras very imaginatively, often in close-up, to bring out the magnificence of the sets.

Neither René Kollo nor Johanna Meier have the biggest of voices, but this is compensated by some highly expressive singing and some fine acting. Furthermore the young Daniel Barenboim gets some superb playing from the Festival Orchestra and this really adds to the excitement.

¹ Wolfgang Windgassen (Tristan), Birgit Nilsson (Isolde), Christa Ludwig (Brangäne), Martti Talvela (King Marke), Eberhard Waechter (Kurwenal), Peter Schreier (Seemann).