Saturday, August 18, 2012

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (synopsis by Peter Sellars)

Act 1

Two damaged, angry, desperate, and hurt human beings are on a long trip in the same boat. Neither expects to survive the journey. For Isolde, suicidal despair takes the form of violent, destructive mood swings, bitter sarcasm, uncontrollable weeping and the need to talk everything out. For Tristan, it is the scarred, painful silence of emotional blockage and denial (during the entire trip Tristan has refused to acknowledge Isolde’s presence). Their closest friends, Brangaene, a healer and seer, and Kurwenal, an old soldier, are determined to help them through their darkest hours, and to prevent them from infl icting more harm on themselves or each other.

Years before, Tristan had killed the Irish knight Morold in combat and himself been wounded by Morold’s poison-tipped blade. This wound could only be healed by Morold’s fiancée, the princess and shamaness Isolde. Under the name “Tantris” he went to her to be cured. She removed the poison and cured the wound, saving his life. When he looked up into her eyes, she put down her weapon. He went back to his own country.

Now he has returned, but not, as Isolde had hoped, to deepen and consummate their relationship. Instead, he has come to collect her, as a kind of courier service, to present her as a trophy bride to his friend, King Mark of Cornwall. She is privately devastated and publicly humiliated.

The women have brought with them on the journey a secret stash of potent ointments and elixirs, a gift from Isolde’s mother. Among them, the most sacred and beautiful is a philter of nectar of the purest, most distilled essence of love. Alternatively, there is a death drink, a quick solution to snuffing out a wasted life when the pain becomes just too unbearable.

At the climax of the trip, Isolde toasts Tristan with the lethal cocktail. They look into each other’s eyes and drink avidly, each eager for a blessed exit and extinction. What they do not realize is that Brangaene has switched the vials, and they are drinking in pure love. For an infinite instant they think they have crossed the barrier from life into death; their hearts are free. Their secret love begins to flow in an irresistible, transforming torrent as the ship comes into port and King Mark is announced with blazing trumpets.

The bright lights of the world of power and prestige eclipse their dream, and they are left confused and amazed.

Act 2

As dusk deepens the sound of hunting horns echoes through the woods. Tristan’s “best friend” Melot has organised a night hunt for King Mark. In the dying light Brangaene foresees that the true quarry is Tristan himself. Isolde has eyes and ears only for the beauty of nature, the harmonies of the evening and the better self that lives in every human heart. Her heart is illumined by the moon, the goddess of love, the feminine power that surges through the universe. When she puts out the last torch, Tristan, who is waiting deep in the forest, will join her in the moonlight. Brangaene senses that spies are everywhere. She begs Isolde to keep the torch burning, and leaves for her watchtower. Isolde smothers the flame and waits for her lover’s approach in the dark.

Their initial adrenalin rush of danger and exhilaration gives way to disbelief, then to slightly awkward banter, and, finally, to hard work. Isolde asks Tristan directly why he tried to betray her. What possessed him? With her help, and in painful bursts of self-recognition, gradually everything that Tristan sealed off comes pouring out. The allure of brilliant fame, the world’s honours, and the flash of success warped his personality, making him a stranger to himself. He hurt his closest friends without realizing it, and the growing disparity between his public image and his always low personal sense of self-worth produced a seething self-hatred. He felt unworthy of the woman whose praises he was singing, and tried to compensate by plunging into military adventurism.

Isolde begins to understand that the man she saw as arrogant and cold was in fact frightened and desperate. But she also has to acknowledge how deeply she was hurt, and how much of that hurt she still carries. The basis for a serious relationship now can only be built as they deal with each other’s failures, disappointments and deceptions, separating the empowering and transforming imagination that sustains romance from the lies, evasions and falsehoods that poison trust.

Together they step into the realm of night, the nocturnal self, the vast space in every human being that has nothing to do with anyone’s day job. All thinking, all appearance, all remembrance are  extinguished in a night of perfect love “heart on heart, mouth on mouth, merged into one breath”. As their rapture reaches its peak, Brangaene’s warning voice peals across the night sky like clouds rolling in from the sea. The reality that all joy in this world will pass away, all beauty will die or be killed sublimates and elevates the love music – we hear the celestial voice of compassion expounding the Buddha’s four noble truths to mortals.

Isolde begins to wonder what will happen in the morning. Mark and Melot are watching in the woods. Tristan has a strange premonition of his own death and declares that he is ready to die tonight. Isolde gently reminds him of the little word “and” in “Tristan and Isolde”. From now on he should try to include her in his dreams and nightmares – he is no longer alone. Tristan is Isolde and Isolde is Tristan. Even in death they will live in a love without fear, nameless, endless, with no more suffering and no separation.

The day breaks. Melot takes the direct path to political power, denouncing forbidden love with great moral indignation and calling for maximum penalties to be imposed on vulnerable people. King Mark knows this path offers neither restitution nor justice. As he pours out his heart we realize that the king is just a man, that he was Tristan’s first lover, and that the “love that dare not speak its name” is as strong as any other love. He is infinitely tender with the man who betrayed him. He is in hell. He hopes one day to know why.

Tristan ran from King Mark to find Isolde, and then he ran from Isolde by offering her to Mark. Covered in shame, Tristan sees that the only thing he has to offer Isolde, if she chooses to stay with him, is a life of failure and death. He has no home. He never had a home. He never knew his father or his mother, who died bringing him into the world. Isolde’s words of comfort are miraculous. Wherever they go together will be their home; she loves Tristan more deeply in his failure than in his success. Thirty seconds later he is dead. After provoking Melot, he is killed without resistance.

Act 3

After love, the last task in a human life is death. We plunge into a dying man’s last agony, hallucinations, flashbacks, visions. The senses are intermittent, but the pain is continuous. One door is opening and another is closing. Tristan is in a coma for weeks. Kurwenal brings the body back to the ancestral home in Kareol. On a cliff overlooking the sea he waits and watches his best friend’s long, slow descent into death. A shepherd farther up the mountain plays on a pipe an endless ancient
melody drifting in the chilly air as the day wanes. Kurwenal has asked the shepherd to change his tune if he sees a ship approaching. He has sent for Isolde who, if she is still alive, is the only healer who can bring Tristan back from the realm of death.

Tristan stirs. The ancient melody is calling him back into this world. He tries to describe the land on the other side, a state of infinite, ultimate forgetfulness. Here, the sunlight is blinding, the searing pain in his body is unbearable. Within “the light is not yet out, the house is still not dark: Isolde lives and wakes; she called me from the night”.

Tristan is sure that he sees her ship in the distance, that she is coming to him again to heal his wounds. But there is no ship. His life keeps passing before his eyes as he slips below the threshold of consciousness. Childhood memories, thoughts of the parents he never knew mingle with the intense re-living of his previous near-death experiences. Pain floods his brain. The heat of his body is unendurable, the spirit is tearing at the flesh. At the maximum breaking point of mental and physical anguish, an instant of blazing, fiery clarity: the magic drink – was it poison or love potion? – was brewed by no-one other than himself, from all of the hurt, sorrow, suffering and joy of his own life.

A ship appears on the horizon as Tristan sustains his final heart attack. Kurwenal runs to receive Isolde. In a final paroxysm of indescribable waves of pain, Tristan tears off his bandages and bleeds freely and joyously. He hears Isolde’s voice coming to him as he dies. Could he not wait for her one more hour? She pleads for him to continue breathing. She has so much to tell him. She came as his bride, how can she be punished with his funeral? Her shock and overwhelming grief deepen into silence.

A second ship is sighted. Mark and Brangaene are landing. Melot leads their advance party. Kurwenal kills Melot and then himself. The group have come, too late, on a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Now Isolde stirs. Looking deeply at Tristan, she sings “See him smiling, softly, softly, see the eyes that open fondly, oh my friends, don’t you see, don’t you feel and see? Is it only I who hear these gentle, wondrous strains of music, joyously sounding, telling all things, reconciling, coming through him, piercing through me, rising upward in the ocean of sound, in the infinite all of the cosmic breath, to drown, descending, void of thought, into the highest, purest joy.”

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