I guess we usually think of a Heldentenor as a voice type, but what Robert Dean Smith did yesterday in the Metropolitan Opera Production of Tristan und Isolde puts different spin on the Helden aspect of the vocal fach. By coming in at the last minute and giving an excellent performance, Smith literally saved the production.
I wish that in his New York Times review, Steve Smith had elaborated on the number of difficulties that Robert Dean Smith had to contend with concerning this production. For Smith, knowing and singing the role was certainly the easiest part of his experience. Even though Steve Smith did not feel chemistry between Robert Dean Smith and Deborah Voigt, I certainly could. It was chemistry that was charged with adrenaline. It was chemistry charged with the act of artistic and professional survival. It was chemistry charged, no doubt, with trying to not lapse into the dramatic situations involved in Strauss' Frau ohne Schatten that he did in Chicago a couple of months ago with Voigt.
Voigt, who at this point was used to playing her Isolde to whatever Tristan happened to be wearing the costume and wig (Robert Dean Smith was #4), actually seemed pleased to have her new and highly able partner. With only one costume for Tristan, the transition was not terribly difficult for the costume people. Had Robert Dean Smith been a foot taller or 50 pounds heavier, they might have had a more difficult problem. I also imagine that they have access to good shoes in all sizes.
All the anxiety was laid to rest on Smith's shoulders. He had to learn all the blocking on the spot. The people in the movie house audience saw him (in the distance and from behind) being instructed back stage between the second and third act. There was no opportunity for any rehearsal with Voigt (who confirmed that in her backstage interview). There was no opportunity for any kind of rehearsal with the orchestra because they were performing Ernani the night before. I imagine that Smith was able to go over some of the piece with James Levine the night before, but most of the musical and dramatic interpretation on the part of Robert Dean Smith was done in performance. That might explain why some of the dramatic gestures that might have seemed "stock" to Steve Smith. There was no time for Robert Dean Smith to develop a Tristan role that would be as deep and as meaningful as Voigt's Isolde. His experience of her Isolde was happening in real time, and unlike the people in the audience, who could allow themselves to be "blown away," he had work to do.
This was a great moment for Smith. This was a great moment for the Met, which, with this disaster-ridden production that was going to be a live-broadcast video as well as audio production, was at its most visible. They proved, with the success of this Tristan to be, as a company, as heroic as its greatest operatic heroes.