has released another in their excellent series of lectures on
operas. This time Christopher Cook explains the circumstances
of composition and the importance of Wagner’s magnificent opera,
Tristan und Isolde. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly,
he then gives a succinct and interesting synopsis of the plot
with short selections of the music used for illustrative purposes
There is one difference
in format for this installation of the Opera Explained series.
It includes a good deal of enactment representing the composer
and others important to the formation of the opera. These take
the form of readings of letters and journal entries from the Wagners
and Richard Wagner’s young mistress Mathilde Wesendonck, on whom
the part of Isolde was modeled. The voice acting job is a nice
touch, bringing the story of the opera’s creation to life.
The creation of the
opera actually provides as good a story as the opera’s plot itself.
This is a real life soap-opera with the rich and noble behaving
very badly. Wagner seduced the wife of his patron while in the
initial stages of composing the opera. The twenty minutes discussing
the composition does a very nice job of telling the tale and not
taking the juice out of the story.
In fact, the story
of the opera is so well told, and so interesting, that the plot
synopsis is nearly a disappointment. There is the usual attention
to detail given to the importance of the work, in this instance
showcasing the music that would eventually lead to atonal composition.
Additionally the leitmotifs are outlined and performed with the
same general excellence that epitomizes most of this series.
The complaint here
is not unique in this series either. The musical samples are often
so short that, unless the listener has a copy of the opera handy,
there will be little other than context that the listener comes
away with. While the script used here is able to stand on its
own more readily than others in the series, due to the story of
Wagner’s affair with Wesendonck, this still can do little other
than stand alongside the main work.
That said, this in
an excellent primer which accomplishes its goals: making Tristan
und Isolde more enjoyable and understandable. There are so
many people who would have an interest in opera were it explained
to them. This is a very good tool to that end, and in this case
is interesting even to those familiar with the music itself. This
is an excellent addition to the series.