I must have been very young when I first learned of the romance of Tristan and Isolde, probably it was the version of the tale wound into the Le Morte d’Arthur which is still my favorite- lots of passion and lovely knightly medieval detail. I assume I was young, because I was already deeply involved with the tale when I first set foot on Tintagel’s steps at the age of 19. At that point,I didn’t even know it was an opera.
But in starting the story on the ship - except for a couple brief flashbacks-Wagner skips a lot of great back story! I get it, sometimes I have to cut out whole parts of operas to “fit” it all into a bracelet.
So, to give you a little context when watching this opera here’s my version of the pre-story cobbled together from my memory from various versions and filled with a load of artistic license. I’m interspersing photos from our last visit to Tintagel in 2002
OK, I am myself going to skip the story of Tristan’s birth and growing up, for which I direct you to the Morte d’Arthur because it is a great story too!
King Anguish of Ireland sends his best knight and brother-in-law Morholt to collect tribute from King Mark of Cornwall at his castle Tintagel. Mark hasn’t paid in like seven years and has no plans to do so now. Morholt offers single combat fight: if their champion beats him, they don’t have to pay the tribute. However, as Morholt is counted one of the best knights in the world – second only to Sir Lancelot- no one in Cornwall will step up to fight him. EXCEPT: Mark’s young nephew Tristan who has never fought in battle.
The two fight this battle on a small island off the shore. Result: Tristan fatally wounds Morholt leaving a big chunk of his sword in the guy’s head. Tristan is also wounded.
The Irish party sails back to Ireland with the dead/dying Morholt. Tristan thinks he’s OK but the wound won’t close. A healer determines the wound is poisoned and Tristan must go the Ireland for healing, as it is the origination point of the poison. They set him off in a boat with his sword and his harp (Tristan is also a gifted harpist). By the time he reaches Ireland, he is near death. They find his boat on the shore because they can hear the harp music he is playing.
Tristan is brought to Morholt’s niece (not fiancée) Isolde, who is the most gifted healer in the land. Tristan hides his name because he is aware they would kill him if they knew who he was. Isolde does a great job getting him on the road to recovery. She is, of course, attracted to such a handsome and fit young man... and of course she’s the most beautiful girl in Ireland soooooo….there’s sparks, ya know? One day as part of the healing treatment Tristan is in the bath. Isolde is tidying up and she takes a look at his sword (uh-oh). Seeing a familiarly shaped gouge she runs and gets the piece of sword she took out of Uncle Morholt’s head (she was unable to save him).Whadaya know – they match! Vengeance is her first thought - her enemy is currently helpless in the bath. She takes the sword points it to his chest --- BUT their eyes meet — they call it THE MOMENT - she loves him and she can’t kill him - the sword falls to the ground.
Never the less, the truth comes out all over the Irish court. But, as he has been such a pleasant courtly gentleman the whole time he was there, playing the harp and all, they decide not to kill him and pack him off home.
When he gets back to Cornwall, he can’t stop talking about Isolde. Mark is half in love with her just from these tales, descriptions and, knowing Tristan, probably songs. He sends Tristan to Ireland to create an alliance between the two contentious Celtic kingdoms and bring Isolde back to be his bride.
Isolde is more than a little infuriated that Tristan has not come to marry her himself.
But the treaty is signed… and THAT’s how we got on this boat…
By the way.. Isolde's mom gives Brangane a love potion that is to be used for Isolde and Mark (ooops)