Stepping into a mission critical job on short notice is a big deal in any workplace, but the Metropolitan Opera recently had an opening for which the supply of viable "temps" is in the single digits -- worldwide. The clock was ticking toward a live broadcast of Tristan und Isolde to cinemas around the world, with Tristans crowding the sick-leave rolls. If you're new to the opera, the role calls for a very atypical voice type and unusual stamina, with as much beauty, emotional presence and gravitas as you can get. (See above: single digits.) But thanks to some combination of luck and logistical heroics, Robert Dean Smith was in town to introduce a vast, new audience to the Tristan for which he is already known in Europe.
This “dream team” Tristan run opened with John Mac Master filling in for an ailing Ben Heppner, but not entirely successfully, and it was announced that he, too, was under the weather. Gary Lehmann got good reviews for the second night, but Deborah Voight was obliged to suddenly leave the stage (stomach thing) and Janice Baird finished for her as Isolde. To add injury to illness, Lehman fell into the prompter’s box at the third performance, stopping the show again while doctors checked him over.
The jinx wasn't limited to Tristan. In the same fortnight, National Council Auditions winner Angela Meade made an unscheduled Met debut in Ernani — her very first professional performance, ever. (The casualty in that case: Sondra Rodvanovsky.) Meanwhile, Ruth Ann Swenson was replaced by Ermonela Jaho as Violetta in Traviata. Six surprise Met debuts in thirteen days.
As we settled into our seats this past Saturday for the simulcast at a downtown Chicago movieplex, we were aware of the curse that had struck, but not up-to-date on what to expect that day. When backstage host Susan Graham announced Robert Dean Smith’s name, John and I happily recalled his impressive work in this season’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the Chicago Lyric Opera. There, he played the Emperor to Voight’s Empress, a coincidence we can thank for these two artists having something on which to base their touching chemistry in Act 2, without having rehearsed together.
Smith has been the Bayreuth Tristan for some time now (where he debuted as a last-minute replacement for Peter Seiffert in the 1997 Meistersinger). Given his seemingly well-prepared stage performance, I was surprised that he hadn't sung in this very production before. In fact, Smith flew on Thursday to New York from Berlin (where he's currently preparing the Berlin Tannhauser), leaving him only Friday to learn the staging.
(Props, as well, to Deborah Voight. When the curtain closed on Saturday she had sung four performances with three Tristans -- none of whom she’d been able to rehearse with, and two of whom she’d never even met. “It makes the love scenes interesting,” she noted during a backstage interview. Up close, I was struck with her commanding presence, but it never detracted from the vulnerability that I’ve always enjoyed about her. Based on this Tristan and the Chicago Frau and Salome, I agree with the critics who notice that her voice has become brighter recently.)
Smith’s voice is youthful and flexible, and his delivery has that combination of dignity and emotional presence that roles like this need. His poignant singing and expressive face he had me in his corner from the beginning, and his final “Isolde!” had my eyes unexpectedly wet. At this point, Smith gave every impression that he had enough juice left in him, after completing one of opera’s most lengthy and demanding roles under these difficult circumstances, to have sung a Liebestod of his own.
Some reviewers have called Smith underpowered in the Met theater. “In a smaller theater Mr. Smith would surely have been a sensation, and he may well have made a greater impression in the broadcasts than he did in the house,” wrote Steve Smith. This was the case. I noticed a couple of times he was very briefly covered by the orchestra, but I’ve seen that happen to the likes of Rene Pape in the CSO venue and even James Morris at Lyric. In our Chicago our movie theater Robert Dean Smith was a sensation. I can only imagine the impression he makes in a venue like Bayreuth, and I’ve heard with my own ears his lack of such trouble in Strauss. Smith had no problem being heard, and heard with nuance, in the acoustically hostile Lyric Opera venue in “Frau” — and I notice that he was slated to make his Met debut next year in that same role.
Ken Winters of the Globe and Mail provides a more general review of the performance and addresses the controversial split-screen approach from broadcast director Barbara Willis Sweete. In a backstage interview, Sweete mentioned that the idea is to give the audience a choice about what to look at. And I did enjoy seeing the close-ups of the fully committed acting from not only Smith but from the regal Voight and especially Matti Salminen, whose warm, lyrical King Marke was a departure from his usual intimidating, negative-space-filled bass, so perfect for roles like Hagen and the Grand Inquisitor. Whether it's a concession to his age, it did the trick for me. Unfortunately, as John mentioned, the split screen greatly compromised the “you are there” feeling.
This same abstract, Dieter Dorn/Jürgen Rose production is already available on a DVD from a few years ago, featuring Heppner and Jane Eaglen. That DVD is more traditionally shot by the excellent director, Brian Large.
On Friday, March 28, the Met’s “Dream Team” Tristan run came to its scheduled conclusion with Ben Heppner and Deborah Voight taking the stage together for the first time. Voight had again called in sick for the fifth performance (three days after her broadcast with Robert Dean Smith). So here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the run:
Performance 1: Deborah Voight and John Mac Master
Performance 2: Deborah Voight (replaced midway with Janice Baird) and Gary Lehman
Performance 3: Deborah Voight and Gary Lehman (who fell into the prompter’s box but completed the performance)
Performance 4: Deborah Voight and Robert Dean Smith
Performance 5: Janice Baird and Ben Heppner
Performance 6: At last! Deborah Voight and Ben Heppner!!!
Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde - Scenes
Linda Watson and Robert Dean Smith
Oehms:527 · $13.99