In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera


Oct 30, 2014 3:44:00 PM
By Joseph Bédier

Duncan, John (1912) "Tristan and Isolt"

Next month, BLO presents the fully-staged Boston premiere of  composer Frank Martin's The Love Potion, November 19–23 at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. A retelling of the Tristan and Isolt tale, The Love Potion is based on a 1900 version by Joseph Bédier. Here is the story of the ill-fated lovers, adapted from Edward Gallagher's introduction to his translation of Bédier's Le Roman de Tristan et Iseult, along with several well-known artistic interpretations through the ages chosen by Magda Romanska, Ph.D. and BLO Dramaturg. 

The Story
Tristan, the posthumous son of Rivalen, orphaned shortly after his birth when his mother, Blanchefleur, dies disconsolate because of the murder of her husband, is reared as the son of Rohalt, his father’s servant, to protect the youth from Rivalen’s enemies. Kidnapped by merchants, the young Tristan arrives in Cornwall, the realm of King Mark, Blanchefleur’s brother. It is only when Rohalt reveals their blood relationship to Mark that the king understands his inexplicable affection for the youth.

In response to Irish demands for a tribute long refused them by Mark, Tristan, in single combat with the giant Morholt, slays the Irish champion. Wounded by a poisoned sword, Tristan is set adrift on the sea, arrives by chance in Ireland, and is cared for and cured by the Morholt’s sister, the Irish queen, and his niece, Iseult. The hero later returns to Ireland, where he kills a dragon to win Iseult for his uncle, King Mark. Poisoned by the venom of this monster’s tongue, Tristan is again cured by these royal Irish women. On their voyage to Cornwall, Tristan and Iseult drink what they think is wine but what is, in fact, a love potion prepared by Iseult’s mother to ensure a mutual love between Mark and his bride. Aboard ship, unable to resist the effects of the philter, Tristan and Iseult consummate their love. 

After Iseult’s marriage to the king, the eponymous lovers continue their clandestine affair. Several of Mark’s barons, jealous of Tristan because of the king’s high regard for him, denounce the lovers. They convince Mark to spy on the two during a clandestine rendezvous under a giant pine tree. The lovers become aware of the king’s presence, and in an ambiguous conversation Tristan and Iseult manage to convince the king, perched above them in the branches of the tree, of their innocence. Later, Mark sees proof of their guilt, when Tristan’s blood is discovered in flour strewn between his bed and the queen’s. Mark condemns them to death. But the lovers manage to escape into the forest, where the privations of a life in the wild, beyond civilizations, are obviated by their all-consuming passion. Mark discovers the lovers asleep and separated by chance by Tristan’s sword. The king takes this as a sign of their chaste innocence. The lovers then decide each for the sake of the other to seek a reconciliation with Mark, for they have both since abandoned their elevated societal roles – queen and knight. To prove her innocence, Iseult swears an expiatory oath and undergoes a judgment by red-hot iron in the presence of King Mark, King Arthur, and their knights.

A definitive separation proves difficult for the lovers, but the danger of staying in Cornwall is great, and Tristan eventually leaves. Following years of wandering and without any word from the queen, Tristan agrees to marry Iseult of the White Hands. Yet, on his wedding night, he does not consummate his marriage, for he realizes that he has betrayed both the queen and his new wife. He then makes a series of attempts to see the queen again, disguised first as a leper then as a madman. Any sustained reprise of their liaison proves impossible. In the end, fatally wounded yet again, as he had been earlier by the Morholt’s sword and the dragon’s tongue, Tristan sends for Iseult to cure him. She arrives, but too late. Tristan’s jealous wife tells him that the sail of the approaching ship is black, a signal that Iseult is not aboard. Tristan dies, thinking that the queen has abandoned him. Iseult finally does arrive, stretches out besides Tristan’s body, and dies in his arms.

Mark returns the bodies to Cornwall and has them buried on either side of a chapel. An indestructible plant grows up from Tristan’s tomb and plunges into Iseult’s, as a sign of their enduring union.

Read more:
Bédier, Joseph. The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Trans. Edward J. Gallagher. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2013.

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