Tristan und Isolde

Richard Wagner

Vienna State Opera (Christian Thielemann, cond.)

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Love und Death, Wagner Style

The famed "love duet" in the second act of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is not just another memorable opera moment. As with many things Wagner (1813-1883), it's larger than life, a meeting of big voices that spirals into something of a marathon. When the first act ends, Tristan has ingested what he believes is a death potion, served up by the spiteful Isolde in a moment of vengeance. Unbeknownst to either, Isolde's maid has swapped the cocktail for a love potion, and in Act 2 the pair marvel at and celebrate the circumstances that have drawn them together.

This inspires a seventeen-minute extravaganza on the notion of death in love. Isolde, sung here by the persuasive Deborah Voigt, is in a tizzy; from the first notes, she belts with a double-forte fervor. Tristan (here played by Thomas Moser) is equally forceful. As the scene progresses, their exchanges become more torrid, propelled not by conventional recurring "motifs" (rarely does Wagner repeat) but tense chromatic passages that push to sharp, almost shouted climaxes.

Wagner once explained it was his need to "vent his feelings musically" that led him to compose Tristan und Isolde, which debuted in 1865. Oh, he vents—that's a given. But that's not all he does. Despite a few overheated love scenes (like the duet from Act 2) and orchestrations that are downright severe at times, this is a work of surprising sensuality—each bit of simmering musical tension becomes an integral part of the narrative. Many scholars fix the starting point for modern atonality here, in Wagner's constantly shifting key centers; at the time of the premiere, some heard these devices as vented feelings run too far amok. One critic who reviewed the premiere, Edward Hanslick, complained, "The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel."

The spry Vienna State Opera Orchestra is well suited to the whipsaw nature of Wagner; the ensemble follows conductor Christian Thielemann's intelligent delineation of the opera's peaks and valleys. Though Voigt has spent her career singing Verdi (a stroll in the park when compared with the more conceptual Wagner), she brings great lucidity to Isolde, drawing equally on vocal accuracy and dramatic commitment to make her scenes, and by extension the entire work, sparkle.

Genre: Opera
Released: 2004, Deutsche Grammophon
Key Tracks: Act 2
Catalog Choice: Die Walkuere
Next Stop: Carl Orff: Carmina Burana, Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Eugen Jochum, cond.)
Book Page: 838

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