Programme notes: ‘Impossible love’

Programme notes for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim concert in Seville’s Teatro de la Maestranza, 19 January 2014


Tales in every culture have repeatedly spoken about common themes since the beginning of history and the birth of literature. Family virtue, ambition and fight for power and, especially, love and disappointment as the driving forces of human relationships have centred both the oral and the written discourses of diverse peoples in every corner of the Earth and for the last few millenniums.

Before the mass media era, before Disney and its Hollywood endings, before the asphyxiating invasion of political correctness, most of these stories were based in the insurmountable anguish of an unrequited love or the drama that affects the person that tries to overcome, without much success, the enormous obstacles that threat their freedom to love and be loved. From the tragedy of Orpheus and Euridice to Romeo and Juliet and the pathetic legend of the Lovers of Teruel, the basis of the Western culture take this exaltation of fatal destiny as a model for an endless number of stories that define our narrative.

Adapting to the different circumstances of each historical moment, each one of these misfortunes reminds us the inevitability of disgrace after the birth of a love story. The idea has survived mostly unaltered in recent texts that were born in our own historical and social context in order to seek a wider identification and empathy with the lives of the wretched lovers. From the literature of the 19th century to popular musical expressions like Portuguese fado and Spanish copla, through the cinematographic production of the 20th and the first years of the 21st century. Who did not shake watching Maria protecting the lying dead body of Tony at the basketball pitch in the final scene of West Side Story? Who can feel no compassion for the cynical Rick when he pushes Ilsa to leave Casablanca to Lisbon so as to save her life from ending at at nazi concentration camp? How can anyone not shudder when Ennis opens his closed and, after seeing once more a postcard from Brokeback Mountain by his partner’s shirt, murmurs ‘Jack, I swear’?

The story of Tristan and Isolde contains all the classic elements for a mythical and literary drama. With several versions produced in the medieval vernacular tradition, this drama takes place in the dark and murky landscape of Celtic and Atlantic mythology. In the first act, young Tristan from Brittany receives from his uncle, King Marke of Cornwall, the mission of bringing princess Isolde from Ireland in order to marry her. The lady tries to avenge this and other previous treasons by drinking a lethal poison supplied by her maid Brangäne. After giving some to the knight, she decides to drink it herself seeking for an end to his drama. Thinking they would both die shortly after, they declare their mutual love and await the tragic end that never arrives. Brangäne unveils that the poison was, in fact, a love potion just before the ship arrives to port and King Marke prepares to meet his wife-to-be.

Tonight’s performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, soloists Andreas Schager (Tristan), Iréne Theorin (Isolde), Lioba Braun (Brangäne), Falk Struckmann (Marke) and Graham Clark (Melot) under the baton of Maestro Daniel Barenboim consists of a concert version of the complete second act, which begins with an evening hunting party in the forests that surround King Marke’s castle. Isolde and Brangäne stay by the fire, waiting for the moment the men are far away so as to put out the fire and send a signal for Tristan to meet his lover (‘Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold’). They will be able to live their love in the intimacy and calm of the night (‘O sink, hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’), which contrasts with the invasive light of day that threatens their love. Their dedication is such that they do not hear Brangäne’s warning that the night is ending (‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’) and are finally discovered by Melot and King Marke himself. The lovers had ignored any consideration for their family, fellows and the king and future husband of Isolde, who moans for such an act of treason (‘Mir – dies? Dies, Tristan – mir?’). To make things worse, Tristan asks Isolde to stay by his side and ends fighting Melot, who had secretly had feelings for the princess. The sword fight concludes with the defeat of Tristan, who is fatally wounded.

The rest of the opera confirms the fatal finale. Tristan flees back to Brittany with the help of his friend Kurwenal. Isolde follows him in this journey and will take him in her arms when he expires. She herself will also die from love shortly after. Marke, Melot and Brangäne arrive too late to the scene. Kurwenal and Melot also meet their deaths in a hand to hand combat. The maid unveils that the irrational love between Tristan and Isolde was caused by a love potion and, in her final breath, the princess awakes and intones the most well-known number of the opera, the ‘Liebestod’, the song that augurs her final death for love.

The profound evolution of personal and gender relationships in the last half century makes it difficult for the present-day spectator to abide by such a dramatic story. The achievement and affirmation of basic rights such as the personal freedom to love and be loved and, of course, to end a relationship in a more civilised manner — some will say that also in a colder and more selfish way —, may have caused loosing the capacity to empathise with those who had to face greater adversities and accept an inevitably disgraceful ending. The destiny of Tristan and Isolde, along with that of Romeo and Juliet, Isabel and Juan from Teruel or Cleopatra and Marc Anthony may seem fairly pathetic in the 21st century. However, the artistic fascination for tragic stories is widely alive. The authors’ and spectators’ thirst for them is calmed by adapting these plots to new realities and that is why we can cry with Maria, Ilsa or Ennis in the same way as the opera spectators of the 19th century would.

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