Opera for 4 singers, mimes and puppets accompanied by a 14-piece ensemble
Libretto by Malcolm Crowthers and Michael Hill
The first performances of Tristan and Iseult were given from 4 to 9 April 1978 at the Maidment Theatre during the Auckland International Festival with Jane Manning (soprano), Robert Oliver (tenor), Roger Wilson (baritone) and Graeme Wall (tenor), conducted by William Southgate and directed by Ros Clark.
The costumes for the original production were designed by Priscilla Pitts and the set was designed by Gretchen Albrecht. 7 banners were arranged to hang in a semi-circle on stage, each banner having its own colour variations linking it to parts of the opera.
About the work
The opera tells the story of the old Cornish legend of the 2 lovers, Tristan and Iseult, in which Tristan, fights and kills the Morholt which was threatening King Mark’s Cornish kingdom, but is badly wounded.
His boat drifts to Ireland, where he is healed by Iseult. Back at court, King Mark says he will only marry the owner of a hair of gold, and Tristan volunteers to find this woman. The woman is Iseult, and when Tristan is bringing her back to court they are becalmed, and thirsting, unknowingly drink a love potion intended for King Mark and Iseult. The consequences of this drive the rest of the story.
Drawing on sources going back to the 12th century, the librettists reduced the story to its simplest structure, producing a text of 13 short scenes. They conceived the work as a sort of mediaeval court masque, introduced by troubadours, who tell the story, but are gradually absorbed into it as the momentum grows, preparing for further transformation in the madness scene, in which various events are telescoped so that it becomes uncertain whether the events are real or occur only in the minds of the separated lovers.
As with the libretto, the music moves freely between various levels. For the first, I drew on 2 early sources — the 14th century dance Lamento di Tristan, and Belle Douette. A second level is the quasi-plainsong music of the narrators, a third the ballad-like style describing Tristan’s heroic or not-so-heroic adventures where puppet action predominates, and the fourth related to my usual style of writing, which prevails in the scenes in which the action between the main protagonists takes place.
This is no place to go into the technical details of the piece, but at this time I was working using magic squares — which have been associated with the sun, moon and planets at least since mediaeval times — as a major element in my writing. As a ‘conceit’, music derived from the square of Jupiter represents King Mark, Venus represents Tristan and Iseult, Mars the battle scenes, the moon the orchard in moonlight, and so on.
The opera is written for 2 tenors, baritone, mezzo-soprano, a minimum of 4 mimes and puppets.
Tristan and Iseult is scored for flute (doubling alto flute and piccolo), oboe, clarinet (doubling bass and E flat clarinets), horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, harp and string quintet.
Score and recording
Price Milburn Music published the vocal score and libretto of Tristan and Iseult in 1977.
Buy or borrow the score, parts and libretto from SOUNZ.
A recording by Peter Crowe has been lodged at the Alexander Turnbull Library and may be accessed with permission.
Tristan and Iseult won a special APRA Silver Scroll award in 1978.
The Composers’ Association Newsletter from October 1978 features a review of the premiere season. Borrow it from SOUNZ.
‘I loved this Tristan and Iseult because here we have a beautiful and archetypal tale of conflict between loyalty and love, told and acted out with supreme economy and clarity in a combination of sound and movement unsullied by romantic lushness or gothic fancy, but with the uncluttered strong lines of Romanesque architecture.’
— Robert Leek, Radio Talk