Beware matchmakers. Beware writing opera when in lust with Mathilde Wesendonck. Beware love-of-death; it leads to the death of love, or death-porn. Wagner must have seen himself as Tristan to Mathilde’s Iseult, Lancelot to her Guinevere, when he shelved the Ring and forged perhaps the most beautiful opera of all.
T & I poses a number of problems. Its staging should be spare yet lush. It requires a measure of taste and discretion, for Wagner wrote this work while well-unzipped (he expected the work to be censored unless it was played as parody) and the material can stray dangerously near smut. It needs a great tenor, a great bass, a great mezzo, a couple of very good baritones and the very best soprano and respectfully, it is not always easy to assemble such.
The story is simple enough. Tristan is the returning Cornish knight-hero. He brings over seas from Ireland, Princess Isolde, to marry old Uncle King Mark. But Isolde desires Tristan and whilst he chastely resists (a la Cyrano de Bergerac), a love potion slipped him by meddling attendant Brangena,breaks his defenses. Love triumphs, then disasters, and Isolde must convince us that she falls in a death swoon over her lover’s corpse. Thus she sings the Liebestod, or ‘Love death’, as she gets wilder and weirder, wondering why we do not see and hear her dead lover, daring herself to die in ‘höchste Lust’ (highest bliss) (cf. ‘Death in Venice’).
We doubt there is anyone ahead of Jessye Norman to do justice to the Liebestod. Jessye, there should be a wide enough portal in Valhalla to admit your mammoth eminence! But TVC approves of the Royal Swedish Opera Naxos recording (2005) and the Baverian State Orchestra film performance (1998), where Hedwig Fassbender and Waltraud Meier respectively give Jessye a run for her money. Meier in particular, with her red hair and wild-eyed stare, represents a truly maddened Irish princess.
In the aforesaid DVD, the staging is odd but interesting, yet filming a stage performance, even with Zubin Mehta conducting (sweating furiously in his white tie and tails), can’t compete with being there. Could not a Neil Armfield, perhaps with the assistance of, say, a Peter Jackson, with perhaps some Henry V touches that obtain from the 1998 production of T & I, make a proper film of it, and realise Dirty Dick’s dream of a total music-drama?