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English National Opera Guide : Wagner :…

English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Tristan und Isolde (1982)

by English National Opera, Nicholas John (Series Editor), Richard Wagner (Librettist)

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Richard Wagner

Tristan and Isolde

English National Opera Guide 6

Calder, Paperback, 1981.

8vo. 130 pp.

First published, 1981.


List of Illustrations

Synopsis Timothy McFarland
‘Tristan and Isolde’: A Landmark in Musical History John Luke Rose
A Musical Commentary Anthony Negus
The Staging of ‘Tristan and Isolde’: Landmarks along the Appian Way Patrick Carnegy
An Introduction to the German Text Martin Swales and Timothy McFarland

Thematic Guide

‘Tristan und Isolde’ Poem by Richard Wagner
‘Tristan and Isolde’ English translation by Andrew Porter

Act One
Act Two
Act Three



This seems to be one of the very few “originals” among my ENO guides, namely one that dates back to the early 1980s. Most of these charming little books were first published in the mid-1980s, virtually all of them have been reprinted numerous times since. It’s interesting to note that the photographs, albeit all black-and-white and often too small to appreciate details, are noticeably better reproduced in old copies. This volume on Tristan, but not the one on Götterdämmerung (No. 31) that appeared in 1985, boasts a remarkably enhanced Thematic Guide. Tempo indications and, where applicable, the words are also included; both are helpful to the hapless layman who struggles even with the simplest notation (pity the instrumentation is not given).

There are other minor differences, but they are not worth mentioning – except perhaps one. Mr Porter’s translation in this book, unlike the one of the Ring, was published to coincide with the first ENO production, that is before he could modify it after extensive rehearsals, as the usual practice goes. Therefore, if you happen to come across a recording of this translation – not bloody unlikely yet possible – the libretto may be slightly different than what is printed here.

The book opens in fine style. A synopsis is not the most grateful thing to write, but Mr McFarland has done an outstanding job in just one page. Fabulous succinctness! With the possible exception of Parsifal, in no other of his works did Wagner make such an extensive use of compressed action. This simply means choosing very few key moments to tell your story, usually starting shortly before the climax. It is an ingenious and effective dramatic device, but rife with hazards. It might well slow down the action too much, or even bring it to a halt. Wagner didn’t entirely escape this danger in Parsifal. But in Tristan he was at the absolute height of his powers, musically as well as dramatically. The libretto alone, whatever your opinion of the poetry, is a tribute to Wagner’s considerable skill as dramatist. As Mr McFarland explains with this marvellous economy of his:

The opera is set in the legendary Celtic world of the early Middle Ages. Many significant events have taken place before it begins, and are recounted at various points in the work, particularly by Isolde in her long account to Brangäne in the first act. These events make up about half the story in Wagner’s main source, the courtly romance Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (c. 1210), and the composer simplified the complex narrative, telescoping episodes and reducing the number of persons, when preparing his text.

The first act opens on board of Tristan’s ship, sailing to Cornwall and bringing Isolde as a bride for King Mark. Tristan has already killed Morold, been wounded by his poisonous sword and saved by Isolde’s healing charms (under the false name “Tantris”), and finally gone to Ireland to woo her for Mark (this time under his real name). Most important of all, Tristan and Isolde have fallen madly in love, though none of them would admit this even to themselves. When she was about to take her revenge with the very sword that took Morold’s life (for he had of course been her fiancée), Tristan opened his eyes and looked “not at the sword, not at my hand – he looked into my eyes” (“nicht auf das Schwert, nicht auf die Hand, – er sah’ mir in die Augen”). And their faith was sealed there and then. The classic love at first sight – much like Romeo and Juliet. I don’t know why the star-crossed lovers from Verona are often seen (see below, for example) as fundamentally different from their cousins on the other side of the Channel. On the contrary, both stories deal very much with the same type of recklessly passionate and unabashedly sexual form of love. They complement each other to perfection by showing that in these matters age doesn’t really matter. It merely gives Tristan and Isolde the opportunity to indulge in metaphysical speculation for the sake of the enthralled audience. That is all.

Anyway, I only wanted to say that it is mightily helpful to have all those past events summarized by Mr McFarland. Otherwise you have to cull the story from Isolde’s confused narratives. And she is a worse story-teller than Katherine Mansfield herself!

Mr Rose is the fellow who starts with the unfortunate comparison between Cornwall and Verona. If Shakespeare “explores the poetic aspects of tragic adolescent love”, he shrewdly points out, Wagner deals with “all the conscious and unconscious aspects of mature adult love”. You serious, John? I hope not. There is no such thing as “mature adult love”. This strange condition may affect mature and adult people, but that doesn’t make it any more sensible. Mr Rose also indulges in some rather superficial parallels between Wagner’s life, his first marriage in particular, and his works until the mid-1850s. So Minna was Senta to his Dutchman, Elsa to his Lohengrin, Elizabeth to his Tannhäuser, and Fricka to his Wotan. All this is chronologically possible and even artistically probable; a good case can be made about each of these ill-fated couples mirroring the dysfunctional marriage of Richard and Minna. But it’s the kind of case that you made first, and then fit the evidence to it. You can easily show this way that Wagner ghostwrote Schopenhauer’s works, while at the same time Schumann ghost-compose his operas.

When he comes to Tristan, the author takes Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wessendonck for granted, although he thinks it was “a stimulus (not, as romantic writers would have it, inspiration)”. He views the music drama as a Schopenhauerian cautionary tale, a vivid representation of the disastrous consequences if “negation of the Will” – or, in simple words, the murder of Desire – fails to materialize. Unlike the affair with Mathilde, of which no firm evidence exists, this theory is largely corroborated by Wagner’s revealing letters to Liszt from that time.

Too bad that I find this cocktail of Schopenhauer, Indian mysticism and Buddhism quite unsatisfactory. Indeed, I find it inane. It is too obviously true that, if we annihilate all our desires, we will be blissfully happy. But what’s the point of doing this? What’s the point of robbing ourselves of everything that makes us human? What’s the point of turning the human race into a bunch of zombies? To my mind, the real hard task of existence is to control your desires, so that both you and the world should profit from them; compared to this, their negation is a simple matter. But the greatest fault in this whole system of philosophical tittle-tattle is that it fails to take into account the greatest desire of all. You may try to avoid this hitch by falling back on the old fable that self-preservation is an instinct, not a desire. This will never do, not as long as we consider ourselves thinking creatures. If we are to follow Schopenhauer and his Far Eastern friends with mystical inclinations, we might just as well extinguish ourselves and that’s that.

I would rather see pairs like Tristan and Isolde, not as cautionary tales at all, but as quite the opposite: inspiring examples that their experience is worth it, never mind the consequences. The latter need not lead to suffering and death. This is included here for dramatic purposes. But I’m rambling. Again. Let’s get back to the point.

Mr Luke’s essay, on the whole, is also rambling, from history of composition to various subtleties of the score, from Wagner’s life to the heavy symbolism he presumably employed in Tristan, from the character of the poem to the zeitgeist. He does mention some obvious, yet often overlooked, facts and truths. He knows, for instance, that Wagner originally called Liebestod (“Love-death”) the Prelude, while Isolde’s final scene had the far more appropriate title Verklärung (“Transfiguration”). Baz Luhrmann forgot that when he used the latter in the finale of his splendidly decadent Romeo + Juliet (1996). Mr Luke also addresses, briefly, the episode with the love potion, wisely remarking that it is “employed as something which does not cause, but reveals, true love.” However, I wish he had given at least one reason why Wagner retained this dated detail from his Gothic source at all. It seems to me a dramatic mistake. After all, we don’t know for sure that the love potion is ineffective. If it isn’t, the love of Tristan and Isolde is largely fabricated. Perhaps Wagner mischievously retained the episode in order to introduce some ambiguity. The problem with this theory is that it requires a degree of cynicism Wagner never possessed.

All in all, an interesting but rather forgettable read. I suppose it works well as an introduction. But you won’t do worse if you listen to a complete recording, following closely the libretto of course, or attend a live performance in the opera house, preferably at least a decent one (Tristan is not the kind of work that suffers easily inadequate singing or mediocre conducting).

“A Musical Commentary” may seem unnecessary in this case. What music could be more instantly comprehensible than Wagner’s? To a certain extent, this is true; with the obvious exception of the libretto, the music needs no other explanation. But, as Anthony Negus eloquently demonstrates, there is more to it. Much more! The musical commentary is extremely detailed, going scene by scene, often phrase by phrase, but very readable and charmingly non-technical (“falling octaves” and keys are just about the most technical he gets); all references to specific leitmotifs are linked with the Thematic Guide and, from there, with various places in the libretto. Mr Negus is not afraid of boldly venturing in the vast psychological abyss of the work, but I, for one, would sooner take a wayward analysis than a tedious description. When he associates certain melodic – often harmonic – fragments with certain ideas, events or mental states, his remarks must be taken cum grano salis and verified, or modified, by careful listening.

But, on the whole, Mr Negus fulfils the two major functions of musical analysis. He deepens your appreciation of both the versatility of Wagner’s music and his miraculous craftsmanship. To give but one example how the score perfectly illuminates the libretto, when Isolde sings “er sah’ mir in die Augen”, she is accompanied by one ravishing motif (first heard on solo cello in the Prelude) and we instantly know she is in love with him. Magical moment! As for the exact meaning and significance of the motif, that’s something every listener has to decide for himself by following its development through the whole work. This is where those numbers in square brackets in the libretto come very handy indeed.

It is with an immense feeling of relief that one turns from the infinitely awkward problem of staging The Ring to that of staging Tristan – a single opera, and one which, if no less inspired by myth, is at least free from any obligation to dwarfs and giants, to horses, bears and ravens, to underwater spectaculars and fire-girt mountain peaks.

There is a powerful line of argument that a concert performance of
Tristan, preferably heard with one’s back to the singers and orchestra, is the ideal performance, and that any stage representation is a sin against the essential nature of the work. For, of all Wagner’s dramas, Tristan is the most sheerly musical, the most perfect expression of Schopenhauer’s assertion of supremacy of music over all other arts. As Paul Bekker once observed, ‘Upon the stage walk sounds, not people’.

This is how Patrick Carnegy starts his compelling discussion of the production history. Settings for Tristan have ranged from Brückner naturalistic designs in the late nineteenth century to Karajan’s highly symbolic production in the 1970s. Karajan was heavily influenced by Wieland Wagner who completely revolutionised the staging of his grandfather’s works in Bayreuth of the early 1950s. He championed minimalist sets and mighty symbols, passionately arguing that Wagner’s works are psychological dramas in which any exteriors but the bare essentials are superfluous. There is a good deal to be said in favour of highly symbolic Wagnerian productions. Many of his stage directions, most notably in the Ring, are virtually impossible to be staged convincingly in the opera house; even the massive resources of modern cinema would be taxed by flying horses, walls of fire and rainbow bridges. On the other hand, Tristan poses no special staging problems. Ironically enough, this is the quintessential drama that makes production totally dispensable. Not the least fascinating thing about Wagner is that, though he transformed the art of opera beyond recognition, he was harshly conservative when it came to staging. Yet, Mr Carnegy provides some provocative, and rather convincing, evidence that Wagner cared for one and only thing in production: the singers. He was bowled over by the uncanny understanding of his score demonstrated by Ludwig Schnorr Carolsfeld, the first Tristan (Munich, 1865, see the cover), but hardly noticed anything else on the stage (except for Malvina, Schnorr’s wife, who portrayed Isolde with equal success).

It was Adolph Appia (1862-1928), a brilliant Swiss stage designer, who changed Wagnerian staging profoundly. He first visited Bayreuth at the tender age of 19, in 1882 for the world premiere of Parsifal, but he was immediately overwhelmed by the music and dismayed by Joukowsky’s painted sets. Appia was the first to propose abstract productions in which the whole work is done by singer-actors and imaginative lighting, at most assisted by a few suggestive pieces of décor. Unfortunately, his ideas were met with the same incomprehension as Wagner’s music had been a generation earlier. Apart from the historical Tristan he designed for Toscanini in La Scala (1923) – and his passion for lighting must have been illuminating about the complex day-night imagery in the drama – all of his designs remained unrealised on the stage during his lifetime (except “in private salons or esoteric theatres”). It was left to Wieland Wagner to build creatively on Appia’s pioneering work, and he did so conscientiously in postwar Bayreuth. It is a fine touch of irony that it was in Wagner’s temple, where his ideas had been viewed with contempt, that Appia’s projects finally came to fruition.

Mr Carnegy’s essay is flawless. It is short yet complete, concise but not superficial. He finishes with a tentative speculation, “now that the symbolic and mythological dimension of Tristan has been so brilliantly explored”, that in the future we may try some Chéreau-like re-interpretation. But he is wise to add that in this case we have “less intrinsic justification”. Looking back on these words more than 30 years later, Tristan seems to have escaped the stage perversity that has become the rule for most of Wagner’s dramas, especially the Ring. On the other hand, with the possible exception of Karajan’s Salzburg production, designed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, I can’t think of any other visual representation of Tristan that has developed further the approach of Appia and Wieland Wagner. Neither, for that matter, has the naturalistic way progressed at all; indeed, it has regressed towards more stylised and less evocative sets. I do believe there is more than enough room for both methods – provided of course that they are not already exhausted.

The last essay is an excellent “bonus track”. It is merely two pages long, but it is packed with fascinating details about sources, influences and poetical idiosyncrasies. It ranges from Gottfried von Strassburg to Schopenhauer and from “alliteration, rhyme and assonance” to “paradox, contrast and chiasmus”. There is remarkably little repetition with the previous three essays. Indeed, rather the opposite: the pieces seem to have been synchronized, so to say. There is one tricky moment in the libretto which is quoted here but receives its proper explanation by Mr Negus. Here it is:

Isolde’s narration of how Tristan tricked her into healing him before coming to claim her as his uncle’s bride establishes a tone of sarcasm and deep irony; as she curses him and chooses the death-potion this tone is intensified, so that Tristan, confronted with her demand for ‘atonement’, can only reply in obscure verbal paradoxes and dark enigmas that tax the powers of listener and translator alike. Even an audience which can hear the sung text can scarcely be expected to grasp, on a first hearing, the repeated chiasmus and the sense of the lines

Des Schweigens Herrin
heist mich schweigen:
fass’ ich, was sie verschwieg,
verschweig’ ich, was sie nicht fasst.

What Tristan is refusing to say here is soon spoken when the potion sweeps all inhibitions away; but the orchestral score has already told us what it was, expressing the dramatic moment on a level the verbal text cannot reach.

Mr Negus quotes Andrew Porter’s translation and explains lucidly the meaning of these not terribly easy for interpretation lines:

The sailors’ cries stir Tristan from a brooding reverie; his words hold the key to the true situation between them: ‘The queen of silence / Makes me silent: / For I know what she hides, / What I hide she cannot tell.’

He understands what she remains silent about: that she loves him. He remains silent about what she does not understand: that he loves her.

I should like to finish by quoting the last paragraph of the last essay. This is an extraordinary passage because it praises the text of Tristan as indispensable for its proper understanding. This may seem obvious, but you would not believe how often experienced Wagnerian scholars chant the old nonsense about the overwhelming importance of the Wagnerian orchestra compared to the poetry. To do almost the opposite, and about Tristan, his most purely symphonic work, is an act of heroism. Messrs Swales and McFarland make no bones about the (de)merits of Wagner’s text, but neither do they lambaste it. “Wagner’s verse, judged purely as poetry, is not of the first rank; but it fulfils its purpose completely.” Consider their generous conclusion:

Wagner’s art forces us to attend to the text. Indeed, Tristan and Isolde is surely the only opera in which the heroine is heard reflecting on the title of the work in which she figures. Isolde comments on that ‘sweet, small word “and”’, a word which joins together (as in the title Tristan and Isolde), but which, in the very act of joining together, alas, demonstrates clearly the condition of separation, or, as Schopenhauer would put it, of individuation. Hence the protagonists’ constant need to name that self which they seek to transcend. Wagner’s text is therefore not merely a pretext for music: language is the only possible medium for expressing essential forces in the drama, just as the music articulates elements which are beyond the limits of what language can say. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Jan 6, 2014 |
A very useful guide to one of the greatest operas in the Western repertoire. Besides the complete text in German by Wagner, the guide provides and English translation by Andrew Porter, who did the great singing translation for Ring of the Nibelung. There's even a discography of celebrated recordings in the back, albeit dated since this guide dates to 1981. ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Aug 19, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
English National Operaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
John, NicholasSeries Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wagner, RichardLibrettistmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Carnegy, PatrickContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
McFarland, TimothyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Negus, AnthonyContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Rose, John LukeContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Swales, MartinContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714538493, Paperback)

English National Opera Guides are ideal companions to the opera. They provide stimulating introductory articles together with the complete text of each opera in English and the original. "A Landmark in Musical History" is John Luke Rose's title for the introduction to this extraordinary piece of theatre. It belongs to the German tradition of mystical writing and a short note on the poem itself by Martin Swales and Timothy McFarland elucidates some of Wagner's literary techniques. Anthony Negus, who assisted Reginald Goodall on the WNO production of this opera, has contributed a penetrating analysis of the musical structure of the opera, while Patrick Carnegy assesses the remarkable solutions to staging an opera which some argue is best experienced with your back to the performers! In association with English National Opera.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:59 -0400)

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