‘Liebestod’ is the title of the final aria, sung by the heroine, in the opera ‘Tristan und Isolde’. This was not Wagner intended: he originally called this piece ‘Verklaerung’, meaning ‘Transfiguration’, and thought of the prelude as the Liebestod. As she sings, Isolde describes her vision of the dead Tristan coming back to life in front of her, where his body lies.
It means ‘Love-Death’, a combination of the German words ‘Liebe’ and ‘Tod’ respectively. It describes the lovers’ consummation in death, to a degree that could never be achieved in life. Undeniably erotic, it has also become a literary term; it can be seen in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or in ‘Wuthering Heights’ when the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff are seen together by a little boy.
The debate surrounding the ‘definitive’ version of the aria is popular among opera lovers. The Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson was much admired for her ‘effortless’ version.
Baz Luhrmann chose the haunting final bars of the aria as the soundtrack to his 1996 ‘Romeo + Juliet’, when the bodies of the lovers are taken out of the church. That version was by the great Leontyne Price, not a singer ordinarily known for her interpretation of Wagner. It is, nonetheless, a spine chilling performace, and it can be heard below in the clip on the left. The more recent performance on the right is sung the German soprano Waltraud Meier, who has played many Wagnerian roles during her career.