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How good it is to see the cambridge opera Handbooks series revived. Encompassing a vast and exciting repertoire, these concise but comprehensive volumes have opened up several works to the uninitiated and furthered general scholarship. It is a bold choice then to resume with Tristan und Isolde, one of the supreme but densest of all operas.

Arthur Groos’ edition of Wagner’s prose draft of the libretto provides a fascinating insight into his working methods. Shifting between somewhat stilted dialogue and poetic observation, the reader can see the final lyrical text emerging. Groos sees the libretto proper as holding many of the keys to the success of the opera. Its highly rhetorical style provides a rich springboard. Paralleled with John Deathridge’s acute observations about the contemporaneous Wesendonck relationship that fuelled Wagner’s imagination, and the public and private realms that exist within biography and opera, we gain a clearer picture of the hazy background to Tristan.

If some of the musical analysis remains as intense as the score itself – though Joseph Kerman’s exploration of the Vorspiel aims at greater clarity – the success of this handbook is really in its ‘before’ and ‘after’ stages. Following Groos and Deathridge’s looks at the former, Stewart Spencer surveys a vast performance history with sweep and panache. Placing performances in historical and cultural context reveals much about how this work has been interpreted. And Steven Huebner charts the not-insignificant impact of Wagner’s score (albeit requiring several volumes in itself).

As ever with Wagner writing, there is a little too much reverence for Tristan und Isolde in this book. It can appear unimpeachable within Groos’ handbook and that admiration often has the effect of placing the work at a distance (despite Spencer’s up-to-the-minute survey). Yet as a starting point, it is a valuable tool and, as Huebner’s investigation attests, Tristan remains one of those great totems around which other music continually revolves.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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