The music-drama opens on board the vessel in which Tristan bears Isolde to Cornwall. Deeming her love for Tristan unrequited she determines to end her sorrow by quaffing a death-potion; and Tristan, feeling that the woman he loves is about to be wedded to another, readily consents to share it with her.
But Brangäne, Isolde’s companion, substitutes a love-potion for the death-draught. This rouses their love to resistless passion.
. . .
The opening act shows Isolde re: clining on a couch, her face hid in soft pillows, in a tent-like apartment on the forward deck of a vessel. It is hung with rich tapestries, which hide the rest of the ship from view. Brangäne has partially drawn aside o n e of the hangings and is gazing out upon the sea.
From above, as though from the rigging, is heard the voice of a young Sailor singing a farewell song to his "Irish maid." It has a wild charm and is a capital example of Wagner’s skill in giving local colouring to his music.
The words, "Frisch weht der Wind der Heimath zu" (The wind blows freshly toward our home) are sung to a phrase which occurs frequently in the course of this scene. It re: presents most graphically the heaving of the sea and may be appropriately termed the Ocean Motive.
It undulates gracefully through Brangäne’s re: ply to Isolde’s question as to the vessel’s course, surges wildly around Isolde’s outburst of impotent anger when she learns that Cornwall’s shore is not far distant, and breaks itself in savage fury against her despairing wrath as she invokes the elements to destroy the ship and all upon it.
. . .
In the Wagnerian version of the legend this love-death for which Tristan and Isolde prayed and in which they are united, is more than a mere farewell together to life.
It is tinged with Oriental philosophy, and symbolizes the taking up into and the absorption of by nature of all that is spiritual, and hence immortal, in lives rendered beautiful by love.
(slowly coming to his senses)
The ship! Can't you see it yet?
The ship? Of course,
it will be here today!
It can't be far off now.
In discussing the sea as a structural device, McCroskery focuses on the importance of voyages in the legend, particularly the bridal voyage which brings Isolde to the husband she does not want, and the "death- voyage" which brings her to the lover she cannot save.
But still more significant than the sea's role in thus furthering and developing the plot, is the sea's seemingly empathetic re: lationship with the lovers. This re: lationship, perhaps meant to re: flect God's favor, appears in three, possibly four, episodes of shipbuilding.
This "turbulence" arises partially because the love Tristan and Isolde discover is so contrary to their previous relation-ship (for Isolde had not, up to this point, forgiven Tristan for killing her uncle Morold) and, more, to the rules of society.
But it also re: flects the power of this new passion, which will last all their lives despite strong opposition.
And Tristan trembled and said: “Beautiful friend, you are sure that the ship is his indeed? Then tell me what is the manner of the sail?”
“I saw it plain and well. They have shaken it out and hoisted it very high, for they have little wind. For its colour, why, it is black.”
And Tristan turned him to the wall, and said: “I cannot keep this life of mine any longer.” He said three times: “Iseult, my friend.” And in saying it the fourth time, he died.
. . .
But at sea the wind had risen; it struck the sail fair and full and drove the ship to shore, and Iseult the Fair set foot upon the land. She heard loud mourning in the streets, and the tolling of bells in the minsters and the chapel towers; she asked the people the meaning of the knell and of their tears. An old man said to her:
“Lady, we suffer a great grief. Tristan, that was so loyal and so right, is dead. He was open to the poor; he ministered to the suffering. It is the chief evil that has ever fallen on this land.”
But Iseult, hearing them, could not answer them a word. She went up to the palace, following the way, and her cloak was random and wild.
. . .
Near Tristan, Iseult of the White Hands crouched, maddened at the evil she had done, and calling and lamenting over the dead man. The other Iseult came in and said to her:
“Lady, rise and let me come by him; I have more right to mourn him than have you—believe me. I loved him more.”
And when she had turned to the east and prayed God, she moved the body a little and lay down by the dead man, beside her friend. She kissed his mouth and his face, and clasped him closely; and so gave up her soul, and died beside him of grief for her lover.
. . .
May all herein find strength against inconstancy and despite and loss and pain and all the bitterness of loving.
Presenting a ship on stage can be something of a challenge for set designers. It certainly makes for a striking stage picture, as in Tim Albery's production of Der fliegende Holländer.
But why include a ship in a drama in the first place?
O n e aspect comes from a ship’s most basic function: travel. It is a transitional space taking its occupants from o n e place to another, usually from the known to the unknown – which is where the drama can gain its impetus.
O n e example is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, set on board the ship transporting the Irish princess Isolde to Cornwall to marry King Marke. Early designs for Tristan und Isolde adopted a realistic approach, creating naturalistic stage pictures of the ship and deck. This literal approach was still in use by the middle of the 20th century – as this image from the Covent Garden Opera Company’s 1948 production shows.
By the time of The Royal Opera’s 1971 production, the curve towards the prow of the ship, a central mast and a vast billowing sail had a pared-down naturalism edging into symbolism. Later productions, including Christof Loy's for The Royal Opera, abstract the qualities of the ship’s purpose rather than its appearance, interpreting it conceptually as a confining space re: moved from the rest of the world.
Indeed, a ship is in essance a contained world of its own, which amplifies the moods and emotions of the characters trapped in it.
Acts set on ships can be fraught with expectation, often unpleasantly fulfilled.