The Irish History of “Tristan und Isolde”

     As today is St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the most famous Irish operatic character in history: Isolde from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Photo: Princess Iseult of Ireland and Sir Tristan

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     Iseult the Irish princess is the daughter of King Anguish of Ireland and Queen Iseult the Elder. She is also the niece of Morholt, the giant Irish warrior who was killed by Tristan. Interestingly in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Morold is Isolde’s former fiancé. 

     The Arthurian legend of Tristan and “Iseult” originally came from medieval French poetry, and also some Celtic legends. Iseult was an Irish princess who was brought over by ship to marry King Mark of Cornwall. While on the ship, Iseult accidentally takes a love potion, making her fall in love with one of the “Knights of the Round Table”, Sir Tristan. Tristan and Iseult fall in love with each other and keep a secret affair until they are caught by King Mark. Tristan is banished to Brittany where he lays suffering from a poisonous wound. He waits for Iseult to arrive by ship in Brittany so the wound can be cured, but he dies before she arrives. She arrives later, discovers him dead, and dies of grief. 

     …..What a cheery story for St. Patrick’s Day, but hey, it’s opera, right? 

     Some of the great Isoldes in opera history include Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad, Astrid Varnay, Hildegard Behrens, Iréne Theorin, Nina Stemme, and Waltraud Meier. Enjoy Tristan und Isolde and its Irish history, and have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Here is Richard Wagner as a leprechaun:

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