Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 2

We began our examination of Tristan und Isolde in last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.  Our prescribed performance – as featured above – will continue to supply our video examples as we move through Acts II and III.  As mentioned in last week’s post, our examination of Tristan und Isolde is focusing on Isolde, and three particular episodes – one from each of the three acts – that demonstrate her ongoing metamorphosis across the span of the drama: from viciously angry and depressed in Act I, to agitated and love struck in Act II, to transfigured in Act III.

Act II

Wagner’s stage instructions set the scene:

A garden with tall trees in front of Isolde’s apartment with steps at one side.  A pleasant summer’s night. At the open door is placed a burning torch. Sounds of hunting. Brangäne, on the steps to the apartments, looks out after the hunting party as their sounds fade away into the distance. Isolde comes out of the apartment in wild agitation.” 

Act II consists of three continuous scenes.  Scene one is a dialogue between Isolde and her maid, Brangäne.  Scene two is dominated by the conversation (which I’ve italicized because it’s some conversation!) between Tristan and Isolde. Scene three sees the discovery of the would-be lovers, King Marke’s long, heartbroken monologue over Tristan’s apparent betrayal, and finally, Tristan’s mortal wounding at the hands of a treacherous courtier named Melot. 

We discover during scene one that a “night hunt” has been hastily organized by this “Melot,” who is presumably Tristan’s best bosom buddy.  Brangäne – suddenly a fount of good advice (way too little, too late, we think) – warns the love-addled Isolde about Melot: “He’s up to no good” says Brangäne, and, for a change, she’s correct.  

But Isolde’s hormone-addled brain is presently incapable of listening to her handmaid, and she remains indifferent to Brangäne’s concern.

As the hunting horns recede into the distance, Isolde extinguishes the torch, which is her signal to Tristan that the coast is clear.  

Act II, Scene Two: The Conversation

The forty-five-plus-minute conversation between Tristan and Isolde that dominates this second act is – bar none – the most remarkable duet in the entire history of opera.  It reveals two very different and very real people, isolated by dramatic circumstances from their respective communities, sheltered – and seemingly protected – by the darkness of night. 

The opening minutes – during which Tristan and Isolde are seeing each for the first time since they were separated at the end of Act I – are crazed, inspired, exalted, frankly almost insane.  The scene begins quietly, as the couple gropes for each other in the dark.  But as they get closer – “you’re getting warmer!” – the orchestra builds to the first of a series of shattering “climaxes” (a-hem) as the lovers finally find each other and passionately embrace.…

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