This month marks the 150th anniversary of the premiere of ‘Tristan und Isolde’, the three-act opera or ‘music drama’ by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). It is a landmark in the development of Western music, the beginning of a move away from hitherto ‘common practice’ harmony and laid the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century, with Wagner’s extensive use of chromaticism, orchestral colour, shifting tonalities and harmonic suspension.
The plot, or synopsis as it is known in opera, is essentially the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult, a tale popularised through French medieval poetry in the 12th century, and inspired by Celtic legend, and possibly the 11th century Persian story of Vis and Ramin, and which in turn is believed to have influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.
Tristan, a Breton nobleman goes to Ireland to fetch the fair maiden Iseult to be married to his uncle King Mark. Each version of the tale has a different twist, but the common theme is that they ingest a potion that causes them to fall madly in love with each other. Although Iseult is wedded to King Mark, the influence of the potion compels the adulterous relationship between her and Tristan to continue, and completing a classic love triangle: Tristan loves and respects his uncle Mark as his mentor and foster father, but is besotted with Iseult; Mark loves Tristan as his son but Iseult as his wife; and Iseult is grateful for Mark’s kindness but loves Tristan. As in most Wagner operas, there are enough supporting and peripheral characters to fit into a crowded Panjim city bus at rush hour, but this is essentially the gist of the plot.
There are as many endings to the story as there are versions, but most commonly it ends tragically as does in Wagner’s opera. In a Danish version, Iseult is a princess from exotic India! Other versions have the two lovers going on to have children named after themselves, while one version (rather ickily) has the two protagonists as brother and sister. I have actually met a brother-sister pair named Tristan and Isolde, and thought it really bizarre until I learnt about these versions.
In Wagner’s opera, Tristan is mortally wounded by his best friend Melot, who, as if two admirers were not distraction enough, also vies for Isolde’s attention. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Mark arrives on the scene when he realises that the adulterous, tempestuous love between Tristan and Isolde was due to a magic potion (yeah Mark, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!), and Isolde then collapses by her beloved and dies as well, but not before she has sung her swan song, the famous ‘Liebestod’ (Love Death. Yes, cheerful stuff) where she envisions Tristan risen again. Mark is left bereft, the only remaining ‘angle’ in the love ‘triangle.’
Wagner was drawing inspiration from real life; in 1852, he was in a relationship (how platonic or otherwise is uncertain) with Mathilde, wife of his then patron, the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendock. He took the unprecedented step of setting five of Mathilde’s poems to music (he usually wrote his own texts), known today as the Wesendocker Lieder. A motif from one of them (‘Träume’ or Dreams) became the love duet in Act 2 of the opera, and a theme in another (‘Im Treibhaus’ or ‘In the Greenhouse’) became the Prelude to Act 3.
The opera is also known for the famous ‘Tristan chord’, the leitmotif for Tristan, heard at the very beginning. It is a wonderful musical evocation of yearning for the unattainable. It is of interest to musicologists for its context, in what comes before and after, and for its significance in moving away from traditional tonal harmony towards atonality. Wagner was writing from the heart, even if an unfaithful one.
By 1858, the love triangle (or quadrangle if you include Wagner’s unfortunate wife Minna) had become untenable, and Wagner had to extricate himself into self-exile in Venice. Minna wrote to Mathilde: “I must tell you with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage. May this noble deed contribute to your peace of mind, to your happiness.”
The irony was the Wagner was so obsessed with Tristan the he had set aside the ‘Ring’ (he was writing ‘Siegfried’ from the four-opera Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen) jeopardising his wedding ‘ring’ in the process. His marriage never quite recovered, despite attempts from both to reconcile.
By 1865, when the opera premiered in Munich, Wagner had moved on romantically into another love triangle, cuckolding another close friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow by entering into a relationship with his wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt.
If there is enough material here for a Bollywood film, you are right. Subhash Ghai’s 1997 musical ‘Pardes’ may have nothing to do with Wagner, but it does draw inspiration from the legend of Tristan and Iseult.
Amrish Puri plays Kishorilal, a successful NRI businessman in the US, keen on finding a match for his son Rajiv (Apoorva Agnihotri). The father-son combine represent the ‘King Mark’ side of the triangle. Shah Rukh Khan (Arjun, Kishorilal’s foster son ) and Mahima Chaudhary (Ganga) complete the love triangle. The plotline is not a direct lift from Tristan-Iseult, but there are other similarities apart from the love triangle: the foster son-father relationship, and the moral-ethical conundrum Arjun faces, between duty, loyalty and honour on the one hand, and love and raw passion on the other. There is no love potion involved, but isn’t the ‘nashaa’ of ‘ishq’ potent enough?
Conventional love triangles are not new to Hindi (or indeed other Indian language) cinema. Even I, not a regular film-goer or watcher, can name a few: Ek Phool Do Maali; Kabhi Kabhie; Faraar; and of course Silsila. But this almost incestuous twist, where the two men in the triangle have a father-son sort of relationship, is unusual, in Bollywood or in our ‘prem kahaani’ folklore in general, unless I am mistaken.
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)