Parlando: The COC Blog


Introduction to Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde

What's it all about?

In Tristan und Isolde, two great enemies fall deeply in love as they unwittingly share a love potion, and, like all star-crossed relationships, their love ends tragically.

In this story, the princess Isolde has been abducted by Tristan to marry his uncle, King Marke. In his first attempt to abduct Isolde, Tristan killed her fiancé Morold and posed as a stranger to trick Isolde into healing his critical wounds. When Isolde discovered his identity and threatened to kill him, he swore to leave her alone. Unfortunately, Tristan quickly broke his promise and returned to carry her off to King Marke. 

During their voyage, Isolde begs to speak with Tristan, plotting to poison him and each time he wisely refuses to meet with her. After repeatedly wishing vengeance on her captor, she finally gets a chance to meet him and the tables turn! Isolde demands that Tristan drink her secretly poisoned brew in an attempt to atone for his misdeeds, but unbeknownst to Isolde, her maiden Brangäne spikes their drink with a love potion instead. As the two now-lovers express their love for one another, they know their union will be short-lived and bleak, resulting in one of the best duets in all of opera. 

Why is it special?

Tristan und Isolde was Wagner's attempt at a lighter opera, spawned from his own tale of unrequited love. Wagner was inspired to compose the opera due to his love for a married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, and, halfway through the creation of Tristan und Isolde, his wife Minna discovered his emotional affair and left him. Musically, it is considered one of history's most influential operas because of the shift away from harmony and the inclusion of the now-famous Tristan chord.


What will it look like?

Legendary director Peter Sellars and renowned video artist Bill Viola have worked together to produce a Tristan und Isolde that is inspired by the elements, particularly water and fire. Gone are the ships and castles and instead, the stage is set with Bill Viola's striking video imagery which acts as a stunning, immersive backdrop for Wagner's core-shaking music. 

Watch our montage video for clips from the production.



Watch this interview with video artist Bill Viola about the imagery used in Tristan und Isolde.

Who is starring in it?

Internationally acclaimed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner returns to the COC to perform Tristan, one of his most famous roles. The COC Ensemble Studio graduate is a major name across Europe and North America and made his last mainstage appearance at the COC in the role of Pagliacci in 1996. 

Melanie Diener is a highly regarded German soprano making her COC debut in the role of Isolde. Diener is known for her portrayal of German-language roles in operas like Der Rosenkavalier and Fidelio. Click here to listen to Diener perform "Stehe still!" from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder

Michael Baba, a German tenor who is well known for playing the title role in Parisifal, makes his COC debut as Tristan after his recent debut of the role at the Landestheater in Salzburg in October 2012. Baba is known for having a wide repertoire, from Mozart to Wagner, which puts him in great demand.

American soprano Margaret Jane Wray makes her COC debut in the role of Isolde. Wray is well known for her skills as a Wagnerian singer and is particularly famous for her performance as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Click here to listen to a clip of Wray singing "O ew'ge Nacht, süße Nacht!" from Tristan und Isolde

Daveda Karanas makes her COC debut in the role of Brangäne. The talented American mezzo-soprano was the winner of the 2008 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, in 2010, she completed her first Ring Cycle.

Alan Held returns to the COC to perform the role of Kurwenal after his much-lauded performances as Simone in The Florentine Tragedy and the titular role in Gianni Schicchi. The American bass-baritone returns again in the spring to play Jochanaan in Salome.

Franz-Josef Selig makes his COC debut as the unforgiving King Marke of Cornwall. The German bass has an international reputation for performing some of the more demanding bass roles in opera and can be heard here singing Tristan und Isolde in concert.

American bass-baritone Ryan KcKinny performs as Melot in his COC debut. McKinny recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Billy Budd as Lieutenant Ratcliffe and at the English National Opera as Tiridate in Radamisto

Bass-baritone Robert Gleadow performs double-duty this winter, as Steersman in Tristan und Isolde and as Publio in La clemenza di Tito. This COC Ensemble Studio graduate last performed at the COC as the Old Gypsy in the 2012 production of Il Trovatore.


Who is Wagner?

To put it simply, Richard Wagner is one of the most accomplished composers of all time. Born in Germany in 1813, he composed his first opera at the age of 21 and achieved success in his thirties and forties with famous pieces like The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. In the late 1840s, Wagner began work on his masterpiece, the Ring Cycle, a series of four epic operas which took him over 25 years to complete. In 1849 Wagner met Mathilde Wesendonck, the young wife of one of his patrons, the woman who inspired him to create his monumental opera about love, Tristan und IsoldeLearn more about Wagner here.

When did it premiere?

Not a man to rush things, Wagner took 12 years to finish Tristan und Isolde, from sketching out the acts to staging the opera. It received its first performance on June 10, 1865, in Munich and already had the reputation of being "unperformable." The opera's premiere was delayed and after four performances the tenor singing Tristan died, and his wife who sang the role of Isolde, never performed again. It took 10 years for Tristan und Isolde to see the stage again and it debuted the same year as Meyerbeer's L'Africaine and Dvořák's Symphony No. 1. Learn more about the history of the performance.


What are the most memorable musical moments?

"Weh, ach wehe! Dies zu dulden!" – Isolde tells Brangäne how Tristan, after killing Morold, tricked her into healing him by pretending to be a stranger named Tantris. While narrating her tale of woe, she curses him.

"O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe" – In this beautiful duet, Tristan and Isolde are fully in the throes of the love potion. They praise the moon for beaming down on them and their eternal love, a love that can only exist in the dark or in death.

"Mild und leise wie er lächelt" – Also known as the "Liebestod", this is the most famous aria in the opera. Tristan dies after Isolde is unable to reach him and heal him in time. Beside his body, she sings about love and death and liberation before joining him.

Visit COC Radio to view all of our listening guides.

Video stills by Bill Viola for Opéra national de Paris’ production of Tristan und Isolde, 2004/2005. Photo: Kira Perov.

Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in 2012/2013 / comments (0) / permalink

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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