The Metropolitan Opera confirmed that Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith will sing the broadcast and HD telecast of Tristan und Isolde this Saturday afternoon. I first heard of this artist when he was chosen by Wolfgang Wagner to sing the new Bayreuth production of this work in the summer of 2005. The first year of this production was not a success. The international press immediately called it the "Ship of Fools" production, being that the entire action takes place on what seems to be a cruise liner which has seen better days. The critics universally disliked conductor Eiji Oue's reading of the score, and the Kurwenal of Andreas Schmidt was attacked by a roar of boos during the run of the production. They were both replaced the following year. Nina Stemme's performance as Isolde, on the other hand, was deemed a triumph. Ms. Stemme was the Isolde in the Plácido Domingo recording of Tristan that came out that same year.
I personally did not like the sound that Robert Dean Smith produced during the first and second years of this production. I found him straining by the time that Act III arrived (it's really hard not to, considering the tessitura Wagner wrote), although he sang a very beautiful first two acts. Critic Larry Lash at Andante was very impressed by Mr. Smith's performance:
"Neither warnings nor punishment need be meted out to Robert Dean Smith. His is a well-thought-out career based around a sizable Heldentenor of uncommon sweetness, inherent lyricism, and a fresh, metallic quality. Smith's Tristan was beautifully paced, and that alone is no small feat. By the time he reached Tristan's "mad scene," he shifted gears into a white-hot intensity, nailing not only the delirium of the scene, but every note smack on pitch (something even Jon Vickers could rarely achieve). I wished this, the longest solo sequence in the opera, could have gone on longer."
When Anthony Tommasini visited Bayreuth in 2006, he wrote the following about Mr. Smith's performance:
"Mr. Smith looks the part of a tall, hardy and wholesome Kansan, and in the best sense, he brought those qualities to his Tristan. His voice is not huge, but it carries well. His sound can be grainy, but the overall vigor and richness of his singing are appealing. In the daunting scene early in Act III when the wounded Tristan erupts with delirious outbursts as he keeps expecting his beloved Isolde to return, Mr. Smith showed awesome stamina and dramatic commitment."
Robert Dean Smith will repeat the role of Tristan five times this summer at the Bayreuth festival. This Saturday, we will hear a preview of these performances. However, if you would like to listen to excerpts of Mr. Smith's Tristan, download my podcast of the 2005 production.