Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tristan's Symbols: THE WOUND

Another potent symbol in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is the wound, die Wunde. Wounds are always big deals in Arthurian legends; Wagner returned to the image of the wounded, languishing hero who magically can neither recover his health nor die for his final opera, Parsifal, where Amfortas (Wagner once said) “experiences the agony of Tristan inconceivably intensified.” For Wagner himself, who suffered from serious health disorders his entire life, a character languishing in ill health was both a real-life experience he knew all too well and a metaphor for the human condition in our alienated modern age.

In Seattle Opera's 2003 Parsifal, also designed by Robert Israel, Chris Ventris as Parsifal heals Greer Grimsley as Amfortas's wound by touching it with the spear that caused the wound originally.

In the oldest versions of the Grail legend, the Fisher King, who is sick and dying, rules over the Waste Land, a dying kingdom in desperate need of rejuvenation. T. S. Eliot knew this when he quoted Tristan’s shepherd in his great poem about modern alienation, “The Waste Land”: Öd und leer das Meer, “Void and vast, the sea.” This powerful line is how the Shepherd answers his own question (when Kurwenal refuses to answer), “What’s wrong with Tristan?”

If you study the plot of Tristan carefully, you’ll find that Tristan gets wounded twice: first by Morold, then by Melot. Morold, aka Mr. Not-Appearing-In-This-Opera, was (in the backstory) an Irish giant and Isolde’s fiancé. (Below, Graham Mullins as Morold comes on to Sophia Myles as Isolde in the 2006 film based on the old legend.) Morold used to come to Cornwall to push King Marke around, and when Tristan was finally old enough to stand up to him he fought Morold, chopped off his head, and sent it back to Ireland, with a piece of his own sword that had chipped off still lodged in it.

But Tristan was wounded in his fight with Morold (right, from the same 2006 film, Sophia Myles as Isolde tends James Franco as Tristan). In Wagner's version, since Isolde was famed as a healer, Tristan disguised himself (taking the name “Tantris”) and got her to heal his wound--and she only figured out who he really was when she took the sword fragment out of Morold’s head and noticed how perfectly it fit in the notch in her patient Tantris’s sword.

Wagner uses a melody that droops downwards, chromatically (a traditional signifier, in Western music, for death) in Act One whenever they’re talking about this “Morold” wound.

Here it is, for instance, when she tells this story to Brangäne, beginning her famous first act narrative:

Or, later in Act One, when she’s reminding Tristan of what he did to her, and she to him:

But Tristan gets wounded again, at the end of Act Two, when he suicidally throws himself on Melot’s sword. Melot (like Morold, an important character in the backstory but less so onstage) was Tristan’s closest friend; at this point he has betrayed the adulterous lovers to King Marke. Tristan challenges him, gets himself wounded a second time, and then spends the final act of the opera in agony because of the “Melot” wound, raving in delirium. He still uses the drooping chromatic motif from Act One to refer to the Morold wound:

Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal cares for the wounded, delirious Clifton Forbis as Tristan in Seattle Opera's current production (Rozarii Lynch photo).

The text Tristan sings here at this point is as confused and confusing as any mad scene in opera:
Sterbend lag ich stumm im Kahn,
der Wunde Gift dem Herzen nah:
Sehnsucht klagend klang die Weise;
den Segel blähte der Wind
hin zu Irlands Kind.
Die Wunde, die sie heilend schloß,
riß mit dem Schwert sie wieder los.
das Schwert dann aber ließ sie sinken;
den Gifttrank gab sie mir zu trinken:
wie ich da hoffte ganz zu genesen,
da ward der sehrendste Zauber erlesen:
daß nie ich sollte sterben,
mich ew'ger Qual vererben!
When I lay dying in the skiff,
the wound’s poison near my heart,
the [English horn] melody sounded its yearning lament.
Wind filled the sail
and pushed me toward Ireland’s maid.
With my sword she opened
the wound she had healed.
But the sword—she let it fall.
She gave me the death potion to drink.
I hoped to be healed forever, but then
the most excruciating magic was chosen:
that I should never die,
that eternal torment should be mine!

He gets crazier and crazier as the scene continues, until at the end, when Isolde crosses the sea to be with him, the music goes into the (for 1858!) lunatic time signature of 5/4, and Tristan rips the bandage off his “Melot” wound so he can bleed to death as he sings:
Mit blutender Wunde
bekämpft' ich einst Morolden,
mit blutender Wunde
erjag' ich mir heut Isolden!
Heia, mein Blut! Lustig nun fließe!
Die mir die Wunde auf ewig schließe
sie naht wie ein Held,
sie naht mir zum Heil!
Vergeh' die Welt
meiner jauchzenden Eil'!
Bloody with wounds
once I battled Morold;
bloody with wounds
today I capture Isolde!
Hey, my blood! Flow now, be free!
She closes my wounds forever--
She comes as the hero,
she comes to heal me!
Let the world dissolve
as I rush toward her!

Clifton Forbis as Tristan rips off his bandage (Rozarii Lynch photo).

When it’s her turn, a few minutes later, Isolde will die a very different death.

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