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Tristan and Isolde: The opera vs the movie

Updated on June 9, 2010
Tristan and Isolde, the opera
Tristan and Isolde, the opera

Opera at its best

I am not necessarily an avid listener of Wagner. Most of his music is intense, heavy and goes on forever. But his operas are truly masterpieces; although, not as easy to listen to as Puccini and Verdi. If you are not an opera enthusiast, I'm sure you would have a difficult time sitting through one of them. Nevertheless, the man was brilliant; a genius, as many would say, and a remarkable innovator.

However tedious his music may or may not be to the listener, it is some of the most intensely dramatic music of the romantic period (aproximately 1815-1910). His beautiful, haunting melodies are rich is chromatics supported by lush harmonies, and his use of leitmotif (repetitious musical fragments symbolizing people or ideas) is extraordinary.

He deliberately broke away from the rigid traditions of the opera of his time, employing an approach he called "Gesamtkunstwerk," or "universal artwork." in which he used music to reinforce dramatic content and expression. Basing his stories on spirituality and myth and writing his own libretto (the words sung by the characters), he addressed philophical issues related to society as a whole; such as, the struggle between good and evil, the physical and spiritual, and selfishness and redemptive love. He integrated drama, singing, orchestration and the visual aspects of the entire production into one meaningful whole. He believed that it was art that brought a production together.

A particularly beautiful and haunting operatic work of his is Tristan and Isolde, the story of unrequited love. It contains the best of innovative techniques Wagner used in his music. The story is as follows"

Tristan and Isolde: The opera

In a bloody battle, Tristan, the nephew of Marke, the King of Cornwall, kills Morold, an Irish knight, who had come to Cornwald to collect a tribute that Cornwald was obliged to pay to Ireland. Morold was engaged to Isolde, the daughter of the Irish King.

Tristan, having been wounded in the battle, some how washes up on the shore of Ireland to be discoved by Isolde, who is unaware of his identity. She decides to nurse him back to health. However, possessing magic powers, she soon realizes he is the slayer of her betrothed.

Although fully aware that she is harbouring a murderer, she becomes intensely infatuated by him, as does Tristan of her. But both of them tacitly decide that their love should remain unrequited. Tristan recovers and returns to Cornwald, only to be sent back to Ireland with a letter from the King of Cornwald stating that he wishes to marry Isolde and make her his Queen.

She is sent to Cornwall with Tristan to marry Merke, the king, but decides on the ship that since her love for Tristan can never be, she must drink a poisonous potion and unite with him in heaven. Tristan, feeling the same as Isolde, decides to drink the potion with her. However, Isolde's companion substitutes a love potion for the poison. This arouses the two so intensely that they cannot resist expressing their love for each other.

Some time after they reach Cornwall, they are surprised by king Merke and his men , who have heard of their triste. One of them severely wounds Tristan, whose companion comes to his aid and takes him away to a small village. Isolde follows and arrives just in time to cradle him in her arms as he dies. She is so disraught by the death of her lover that she expires onto his body, having prayed to be reunited with him in death.

Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, the opera

Tristan and Isolde: The movie

Although the opera is still popular today, the movie has gained tremendous popularity. The beautiful, romantic story of unrequited love lends itself perfectly to the wide screen. It's interesting to compare the two. Filmed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie remains fairly true to the story, however, it is not presented as myth, but rather as a timeless medieval epic tale of romance.

Receiving mixed reviews, it starred James Franco (recently see as James Dean) and Sophia Miles (TV series: Moonlight). as star crossed lovers doomed by the forces of imperial politics. When young, English knight Tristan wins the love of Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king, (David O'Hara) their liaison threatens to destroy the uneasy truce between their two nations. Rufus Sewell plays English warlord Lord Marke.

The soundtrack is enchanting and the lighting, color and screen depth superb. An authentic, well-acted and expertly crafted film, it's worth taking a look at, especially if you like romantic tales of unrequited love.

Isolde is promised to marry Lord Marke but she is already in love with Tristan. They continue an affair behind his back but get caught. In the end Tristan is killed by his uncle's men, and Isolde, who finds him dead, prays to be united with him after death and  succumbs at his side.

Music for video, "It's Not Over", by Secondhand Serenade.


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