Robert Dean Smith

Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuther Festspiele

Bayreuther-tristan * Notes * 
The closing performance of the Bayreuther Festspiele was Friday night's Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra had a full, even tone under the direction of Peter Schneider. However, the volume overwhelmed the singers in many cases. The singing started off roughly for the two principals, at first, Iréne Theorin (Isolde) shrieked flatly and Robert Dean Smith (Tristan) was nearly inaudible. As Brangäne, Michelle Breedt was shrill, and as Kurwenal, Jukka Rasilainen was monochrome. At least Martin Snell (Steuermann) sounded pretty and the chorus sang with vim.

The second act was a definite improvement. Theorin sang on key and blended nicely with Smith. Their duet was lovely. As König Marke, Robert Holl's voice was a grave contrast to Smith's. By the last act, Rasilainen pulled through, singing with emotion and beauty at the end. Smith gave an arresting performance in the first half of Act III, and was only muffled by the orchestra a few times. On the contrary, Theorin's Liebestod was conspiciously less dazzling, though her pianissimo at the beginning was exquisite.

The production from Christoph Marthaler was dull, we started the evening at the top of a building, and made our way down. Anna Viebrock's set involved peeling wallpaper and other signs of decay, and her costumes wended their way through the 20th century. The scenes were often static, but were punctuated with nonsensical movement. Kurwenal wandered around the periphery near the end of Act II and would periodically fall down. All the characters except Tristan and Isolde ended up facing the walls during the Liebestod.

* Tattling * 
The audience murmured, and there was quite a lot of noise before the Liebestod, when more than one person exited the theater. The German man behind me in Row 15 Seat 24 on the right side of the Parkett hovered over me for much of Acts I and II, he touched my hair more than once. During Act III I decided the only way to be comfortable was to simply assert myself, so I sat on the cushion I brought but did not need, and sat as straight as possible. This worked very well. Unfortunately, my companion was less lucky, the American in Row 14 Seat 22 slept through much of the first two acts, but was woken when his cellular phone rang in the middle of Act II. At the second intermission he must have had a good deal of coffee, for I could smell his breath during Act III, as he stared over in our direction. Whilst awake, he elbowed my companion several times and also talked. It was utterly bizarre, he was in some sort of Wagner Society, had the libretto in German, and also extensive notes on all the operas at the Festspiele this year.

There were scattered boos when the curtain came down at the end, presumably for the boring staging and not Theorin.

Tannhäuser at Unter den Linden

Tannhaeusersoudl* Notes *
Yesterday Tannhäuser had its final performance this season at Staatsoper Unter den Linden. To my great surprise, Harry Kupfer's production was fairly simple and worked well. The lines were clean and Buki Shiff's costumes for the principals were inoffensive, and some of her evening gowns for the chorus were stunning. This is consistent with her work in the David Alden production of Rodelinda in Munich and San Francisco. There was a particular red number with one feathered sleeve that was fetching. The staging was amusing, the bacchanalia ballet was conducted on top of an over-sized white piano. The nude dancers were painted white in most cases, but one was also gold, and for the most part they just held various modern dance poses. The piano reappeared in a black guise for Act II, and the hall was not unlike an opera house. Part of the staging had a supernumerary arriving late and trying to find her seat, which she had great difficulty with, naturally. Another recurrent theme was having Tannhäuser supine on ground, which was where he started the opera and where he was found by the hunting party. Best of all, he threw himself into this position before the Pope after singing "Nach Rom!" at the end of Act II.

Musically there were a few rough starts, the hunting horns at the end of Act I Scene 3 were clearly flat at times and Anne Schwanewilms (Elisabeth) was not great in her first aria, "Dich, teure Halle." For the most part the orchestra sounded good, Philippe Jordan kept the musicians together and reigned them in so that the singers were never completely overwhelmed. Soprano Schwanewilms sounded quite beautiful after she was warmed up, she only cracked slightly on the word auch when she protected Tannhäuser after the song contest. Michaela Schuster sang well as Venus, her dark tones in fine contrast with Schwanewilms' brilliance. Robert Dean Smith was convincing as Tannhäuser, his pretty voice did sound heroic and tragic when necessary. He was a bit quiet, though not as weak as Roman Trekel (Wolfram). Trekel lacked resonance and volume, and his "O du, mein holder Abendstern" was the only moment in the opera that was truly disappointing. Nonetheless, this performance was the best I have witnessed at the Staatsoper in Berlin, the end was absolutely transcendent.

* Tattling *
There was a small fire somewhere in the opera house during Act II Scene 3 and one could smell the smoke in the third tier. As the Landgraf and Elisabeth sang, the audience stood up and some people started to exit. The singers looked rather confused, and someone came out to explain that the fire had been extinguished and that there was no danger. Then we stood around for a bit, and someone else came out and said we would take a 15 minute intermission to wait for the smoke to clear.

Someone on the left side of the third tier was wearing a watch with an alarm on the hour, which I heard at least three times. Additionally, somehow I sat amidst a school group from Majorca, pianists from the ages of 12-20. They did not understand German terribly well, and the three on the right of center made us get up about 10 times during the intermissions so that they could get from one side of the theater to another. These children had to be hushed multiple times, which they found entertaining. However, they did quiet down, and whispered instead of speaking aloud. They also took a half dozen flash photographs during the performance. I believe they will also be at the performance of Don Giovanni tonight.

Tristan und Isolde Live in HD Met Simulcast

Mettristan * Notes *
The Dieter Dorn/
Jürgen Rose production of Tristan und Isolde was shown as a simulcast yesterday. I tried my best not to worry too much about the set and staging, as I did not find the Dorn/Rose Le Nozze or Così at Bayerische Staatsoper particularly interesting, though their Don Carlo was not bad. However, I found myself liking the production, especially Max Keller's lighting. Naturally, in Act III, there were ridiculous props on stage to signify we were in Kareol, including a number of toy knights in armor.

James Levine conducted well, the orchestra and singers were all synchronized. Deborah Voigt (Isolde) was in fine form, she only had one small gasp before she put the torch out in Act II. She sang the "Liebestod" beautifully. Robert Dean Smith's debut as Tristan at the Met seemed to go smoothly, especially considering he was in Berlin a few days ago and was flown in just for this performance. There were a few times when the orchestra overwhelmed him, and when he didn't exactly know where to be on stage. Michelle DeYoung was lovely as Brangäne, her high notes are fine and her voice is strong without being ugly. Matti Salminen embodied King Marke, he looked and sounded the part.

* Tattling *
Susan Graham was a fine host, I never noticed how expressive her eyebrows are. Her interviews with Levine and Voigt were especially charming. There was only one time the sound went out this time, for a few seconds when Kurwenal was singing in Act III. From the simulcast, it was quite clear that both Voigt and DeYoung have perfect teeth, and that Voigt's eyes are a most brilliant blue.

Barbara Willis Sweete's filming of the simulcast was extremely irritating. She employed the use of multiple images, which in and of itself could have been useful, but since the perspective kept changing and the images moved around, tracking a certain character, it was simply headache-inducing. Often the field of vision was constricted, so that there was just one small box on the screen with a bunch of empty black space around it. It was also quite annoying when the images would show either exactly the same image (the image of the flame trebled, for example), or the same person in different views. The constant motion was at odds with the production and with the work itself.

The Wagnerians were out in full force, the movie theater was sold-out. One couple arrived late and sat in front of me, they spoke at full volume a few times. The female half of the couple received a phone call during Act III, as the male half kept falling asleep and snoring.

Fidelio at Bayerische Staatsoper

Fidelio* Notes *
Peter Mussbach's production of Fidelio, which premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper in 1999, is infuriating and yet strangely dull. The set is boring, despite the many scene changes. It was also rather loud, the scrims made all sorts of sounds as they banged against the stage and a certain metal door squealed when opened or closed. There were bizarre choices of when have the curtain down, as in the middle "O welche Lust" and during the Overture to Leonore No. 3, which was placed, as it sometimes is, between Florestan and Leonore's duet and "Heil sei dem Tag!" The choreography was simply stupid, why have Marzelline spin around in joy and then grab the wall or have everyone space themselves neatly like sculptures on a staircase?

The costumes, by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, are likewise unexciting, lots of white and grey, though at some point Jaquino wore a skirt for just one scene. Certainly the most annoying part of the production is Konrad Lindenberg's lighting, or rather, lack thereof. The faces of the singers were perpetually in shadow, which dampened their dramatic force. Ridiculously, the rest of the stage was lit well, so one could see a staircase, or a heater, or a pile of dirt perfectly clearly.

Christof Prick's conducting was not inspired, the horns sounded off in the overture of Act I, and generally it seemed somewhat slow. The chorus sounded rather strange in the last scene, for they were placed in rows beneath the principal singers. Waltraud Meier was at least reasonable visually in the title role, but vocally she was brittle and out of tune. Robert Dean Smith was somewhat reedy as Florestan. The rest of the cast was fine, certainly best was René Pape's Rocco. His voice has good volume but is also nuanced. Martin Gantner sang the small role of Don Fernando, and as usual was not unpleasant.

* Tattling *
The audience distinctly less well-behaved than at Parsifal, though, at least, there was no late seating. There was whispering throughout, a chief offender on the orchestra level was in Row 17 Seat 696. This white-haired fellow also turned some sort of device on during the overture, for his face was bathed in a blue light for a few seconds. A person to his left peered over at him, confused by the visual disturbance. There were also two beeps during Act I, at least one was during an interlude in which Florestan and Leonore's voices are heard, but there is no music.

Die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!

BsomeistersingerThe Münchner Festspiele and the 2002-2003 opera season at the Bayerische Staatsoper ended with a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. August Everding's production from 1979 was undoubtedly the best I have seen with this opera company, and naturally, they are getting a new one for next time.

Peter Schneider conducted impeccably. The music was very beautiful, less monumental than Der Ring, much more filled with joy. Jürgen Rose's sets and costumes were lovely, the sets were not ornate, of light wood, but filled the space nicely. The costumes were fitting for the middle of the 16th century from what I could tell, and there were no strange choices of color.

The singing and acting all came off well. Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Hans Sachs and Eike Wilm Schulte as Sixtus Beckmesser were especially good in Act II, as the latter is trying to serenade Eva, and the former is cheerfully foiling his efforts by cobbling while singing.

Robert Dean Smith as Walther von Stolzing, our headstrong Frankish knight, was charming, a very pleasing voice, but his accent in German is not perfect.

René Pape has the perfect voice for Veit Pogner, but he seems to young to be the father of Eva, just as far as his carriage.

At any rate, it was a thrilling performance. To think that the opera itself premiered in that very space!