Love You to Death!

September 28, 2016  Preview of Met Live in HD Broadcast

Love and death: what would tragic opera be without them? Wagner’s masterpiece boldly explores the obsessive fatalism of erotic love. And there is nothing subtle about it; Tristan und Isolde’s exquisite and famous Liebestod music epitomizes these twin themes so prevalent in opera. Transcendent, moving, masterful; these are the adjectives often used to describe Tristan und Isolde. The work deserves them.

Since early in his career, the opera world has been divided into the pro- and anti- Wagner camps. It is Tristan und Isolde, however that marks the radical departure from traditional operatic format. Now Wagner creates a new dimension, the music drama. His of the leitmotiv, a motif or melodic fragment associated with character or theme, intensifies, as does his chromaticism, his fluid relationship to a tonal center. No longer are there set pieces, arias and ensembles that stand alone, but rather there is a continuous flow of endlessly evolving melody and harmonic shifts. The orchestral sound is huge, evocative, overwhelming. 60s girl group Phil Spector didn’t invent the wall of sound, Wagner did.

We have a war between rival Celtic kingdoms. Tristan, the nephew of King Marke of Cornwall, captains a ship taking the Irish princess Isolde to wed Marke. A rather complicated back story, not uncommon in opera libretti, involves, among other things, a broken bit of sword buried in Tristan’s head! For this and other reasons, including being shipped off to marry a man she’s never met, Isolde is angry. Very angry, so angry in fact that she orders her servant Brangaene to make a poisoned potion to kill both herself and Tristan. Brangaene, however, cooks up a love potion instead, with the expected result. And that’s just the first act!

The current Met production features soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde in a performance the NY Times reviewer called “outstanding,” adding that her vocal delivery ranged “from steely rawness to melting warmth.”  The production has a modern look; the lovers travel not by medieval barque but by modern battleship. You may have seen the incredible Ms Stemme in last season’s Elektra; if so, you will surely want to be present for this. Should be extraordinary.

John Deaderick is a local theatre artist and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at

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