Friday, August 6, 2010

Tristan's Symbols: DEATH

Ordinarily, in real life on planet earth--and in the world of drama (even tragedy)--death is to be avoided. One of the things that was (and still is, really) controversial about Tristan und Isolde is that this most basic of rules gets reversed: in Tristan death is a comfort, a friend, the goal of the journey, and it’s life that’s the problem. Acts One and Two of this opera conclude with suicide attempts, and Act Three ends when Tristan and Isolde both finally do die.

We don’t hear the “Death” motif very often in Tristan und Isolde, but it makes a big impression when we do hear it. It’s basically two strongly articulated, surprisingly distant chords, with a jagged, octave-leaping melody outlining the words “Todgeweihtes Haupt, Todgeweihtes Herz” (Head consecrated to death, heart consecrated to death):

The impressive finality of that motif returns when Isolde takes out the “Death” potion from the kit full of medical supplies her mother packed for her:
Für Weh und Wunden gab sie Balsam,
für böse Gifte Gegengift.
Für tiefstes Weh, für höchstes Leid
gab sie den Todestrank.
Der Tod nun sag ihr Dank!
For woe and wounds, she gave me balm,
for deadly poison, antidotes.
For the deepest woe, for the greatest suffering
she gave me the Death Potion.
Let death now be her thanks!

Annalena Persson as Isolde and Margaret Jane Wray as Brangäne

And, of course, the full orchestra blares out the death motif when Tristan expires in Isolde’s arms toward the end of Act Three. His final line is the craziest, and most interesting, thing he sings in his entire mad scene, and then the death motif silences him:
Wie, hör' ich das Licht?
Die Leuchte, ha!
Die Leuchte verlischt!
Zu ihr, zu ihr!
How’s that, do I hear the light?
The glow, ah!
The gleam quenched!
To her, to her!

Clifton Forbis as Tristan in Act Three

But as Isolde dies, a few minutes later, we hear the much gentler, sexually irresistible music of the "Liebestod." Perhaps, unlike Tristan, she wasn’t consecrated to death head and heart--but rather chose death, to be with him. Some have called her Liebestod a perverse riff on the old deus ex machina ending, in which God interferes to give a story a happy ending. Is Isolde’s love-death a happy ending for a world without God?

The final image in the current production.

Top image by David Kreitzer for Seattle Opera's 1981 production of Tristan und Isolde. All photos by Rozarii Lynch.

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