Peter began thinking deeply about this opera several decades ago, when he was getting to know Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein challenged him to deal with the curious way Tristan und Isolde structures time--how the opera seems to compress time, then dilate it, and finally shatters it into a million fragments, while compressing all of eternity into a single moment. Peter spoke about “Tristan” time, an experience of heightened awareness, of time reaching back and forth into different dimensions, of the magnification of time; he encouraged his cast to read the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, by Ambrose Bierce, conveniently posted HERE, as another approach to this question of the nature of time. In this famous story, Bierce expands upon the idea of life flashing before your eyes as you die. Kazaras suggests that Tristan and Isolde have the same experience, as they drink their magic potion.
Like the “Tristan” chord, which Asher Fisch discussed in our recent video, the magic potion is a symbol so fraught with a multiplicty of meanings that it almost doesn’t mean anything. As Tristan himself sings, in his great epiphany and mad scene in Act Three:
The fateful potion that caused this torture,If you want to cogitate about “the mystery of the potion”, as Brangäne puts it, here are some representations of that iconic moment, that image at the heart of this opera, that fraught moment when the woman offers the man a beverage. This kind of story always needs that scene, whether we’re talking about Tristan and Isolde:
I brewed it myself!
From father’s need and mother’s pain,
from tears love caused all my life,
from laughter, weeping, grief, and bliss
I fashioned the drink’s poison!
And I particularly love this one with Melchior and Flagstad:
Or Siegmund and Sieglinde:
Or Siegfried and Gutrune:
Or Aragorn and Eowyn:
Or, in Neil Gaiman’s recent riff on Beowulf, Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother and Ray Winstone as the hero: