The pucker factor was mighty high at New York's Metropolitan Opera last weekend. This year's much-anticipated production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde seemed doomed (like its main characters) right from the start of its six-performance run. Star soprano Deborah Voigt, their Isolde, fell ill the week before. Other sickness ('tis the season) or mishaps laid low not only Ben Heppner — the scheduled Tristan — but two of his replacements. Each of the first three performances sported a different Tristan. There was a lot at stake: Saturday's matinee performance was earmarked for high-definition satellite simulcast to more than 600 theaters worldwide.
Wagnerian "Heldentenors" (heroic tenors), are rare beasts: There are maybe 10 of them in the world who can sing the almost superhuman role of Tristan up to major house standards — and most of them are busy elsewhere. So everyone heaved a guarded sigh of relief when the Met announced Friday that American tenor Robert Dean Smith was flying in from Berlin for a very sudden Met debut. All we knew at first was that he'd sung Tristan at Bayreuth, Wagner's own legendary venue in Germany.
We needn't have worried. Voigt — perhaps our greatest Wagnerian soprano these days — rebounded to glorious top form. And Smith shrugged off jet lag long enough to do ringing justice to his role. No rehearsal, mind you — and he hadn't even met many of his fellow singers by performance time. But his sure stage instincts launched him head-first into what turned out to be a well-knit and thrilling production. He's hardly the biggest voice around (Voigt tended to drown him out), but his sheer vocal beauty and sensitivity more than made up for that. The lesser roles were gloriously sung, too. Whew! Crucial performance rescued.
And the operatic magic flowed in other ways. The stunning sets inhabited a huge, cunningly lit "tent" that made for striking visual perspectives. My only gripe concerns the "live-filmed" visual format that often split into annoying "thumbnail" images (up to six at a time) that often distracted from the broadcast's "live" feeling. Maestro James Levine got lustrous and emotionally potent playing from the pit.
I could've caught it for free at the Charleston County Library downtown — but chose instead to make the brief journey to Summerville's Azalea Square Stadium 16, where opera lovers can revel in big-screen, sonically vibrant splendor for a mere $22 — chump change, compared to the cost of a real Met ticket. But whether you pay for it or not, you simply can't ignore the new, virtual Met. Catch La Bohème on April 5 and La Fille du Régiment on April 26. More at www.metopera.org. —Lindsay Koob