How to Order | Subscribe Now | Shop Merchandise
The idea of creating an opera based on the Tristan legend occurred to Wagner in 1854, and the same year he sketched out all three acts. The earliest known literary reference of this Celtic legend dates from the 12th century. The opera is based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s writing, which probably dates from the first decade of the 13th century. It is considered one of the great works of German medieval literature.
June 10, 1865 in Munich
Even before its premiere, Tristan und Isolde gained a reputation as being “unperformable” after various planned productions fell through. With financial help from King Ludwig II of Bavaria a Munich premiere was finally set, but the leading soprano lost her voice that afternoon and the premiere was delayed. The opera finally premiered in Munich on June 10 of 1865. The leading tenor died after only four performances and his grief-stricken wife, who played Isolde, never performed again.
Tristan und Isolde was not performed again until almost 10 years later. The first Bayreuth production took place in 1886, after Wagner’s death.
Now, of course, Tristan und Isolde is considered one of the preeminent works of romanticism and one of history’s most influential operas.
The silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, who was a great admirer of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal in 1852. Wagner moved into the cottage and began an involvement with Mathilde Wesendonck, Otto’s wife. Their relationship may, or may not, have remained platonic, but Wagner was infatuated with her and she served as his muse. Wagner's composition of Tristan und Isolde was greatly influenced by Mathilde and by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose ideas turn up frequently in the libretto of Tristan. Schopenhauer’s vision of humanity being tortured by the gulf between desire and reality are especially present in the second and third acts.
In 1858, after completing the first act of Tristan und Isolde, scandal erupted when Wagner’s wife intercepted a letter between Wagner to Mathilde. Both Wagner and Mathilde denied any romantic involvement, but both women left Zurich; Minna Wagner to Dresden and Mathilde to Italy. During their absence, Wagner worked on the second act of Tristan. On Minna’s stormy return to Zurich, Wagner left for Venice. He spent eight months in Venice and completed the second act of Tristan. He then travelled to Lucerne where he completed the opera.
Tristan und Isolde is widely acknowledged as one of the peaks of the operatic repertory. It is acknowledged for Wagner's advanced use of chromaticism, tonality, orchestral colour and harmonic suspension.
Video still by Bill Viola, from the Opéra national de Paris production of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: Kira Perov © 2005
Generously underwritten by Lisa Balfour Bowen and Walter M. Bowen; Cecily and Robert Bradshaw; Philip Deck and Kimberley Bozak; Donald O’Born; Tim and Frances Price; Colleen Sexsmith; Sandra L. Simpson; and, Ryerson and Michele Symons.
Please note special start times.