Any misgivings I had about last week's HDLive telecast from the Metropolitan Opera were dispatched en masse when I returned for today's telecast of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This was in spite of the illness that prevented Ben Heppner from singing Tristan and led to Deborah Voigt (who also had a smaller bout with illness) having to sing Isolde opposite four different Heldentenors. Today's Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, who has sung Tristan many times in Europe but was making his first American appearance in the role. He was definitely worth both hearing and seeing. Not only did he have the quality of voice and Wagner-scale endurance for the music; but also he had a keen sense of drama that held up well under the not-always-complimentary eye of the video camera. Voigt made an excellent partner for him, which was particularly impressive since she confessed to Susan Graham during her intermission interview that there had been no time for the two of them to come together for any rehearsals.
However, the real star of the telecast itself was video director Barbara Willis Sweete. If she was responsible for all the things that displeased me about last week's telecast of Peter Grimes (and the general problem of video broadcasts of music performances), then she has now gone a long way towards redeeming herself. The reason was that, for this production, she decided to experiment with how video technology could add to the opera experience; and her decision was apparently encouraged (if not incited) by general manager Peter Gelb. The two of them also made the bold move of not saying anything about the experiment until the intermission after the first act.
Nevertheless, it did not take long to discover that this was not the video equivalent of point-and-click. Our very first image from the stage was a reduced-scale view in the center of the screen, which gradually expanded to fill the screen during the opening sailor's song. As the act progressed Sweete deployed different strategies for partitioning the screen, allowing us to see a broad view of the entire stage alongside close-ups. Done the wrong way, this would have come off as gimmickry that did little more than interfere with attempts to watch the opera as if we were actually sitting in the Met; but her strategies were clearly well informed by the dramatic strategy of the libretto. Every "move" she executed made sense as a coherent vision of Dieter Dorn's approach to staging this opera.
The result was not only one of the best visualizations of Tristan but also perhaps the best way to introduce a novice to what many (myself included?) would regard as the most important opera of Wagner's career. Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk philosophy meant that he was as responsible for the libretto as he was for the music and stage directions; and, as I remarked about the San Francisco Opera production of Tannhäuser, his literary skills were usually the weakest link in his chain. Thus, while the music has a firm hand on how the story unfolds, the text, whether in the original German or in English titles, does not always enhance that unfolding. To a great extent Sweete's video work compensated for Wagner's greatest shortcoming, following the motivational leads of the music while using her camera strategies to lend a bit more credibility to the flow of the text.
Needless to say, the production designer makes the most important decisions about how the text is to be interpreted, which is why I credited Sweete for producing "a coherent vision" for Dorn's staging; but, because her cameras could do things that the singers could not do, she used that vision as a point of departure and ultimately delivered it with far greater impact. Perhaps her most effective move came in the third act, just before Isolde's "Mild und leise" aria. At this point in the story, except for Isolde, Brangäne (Michelle DeYoung) and King Marke (Matti Salminen) are the only characters still alive, sorting out all the fatal consequences of Brangäne's decision to substitute a love potion for a death potion in the first act. Sweete chose to give each of these characters a "personal window" on the screen. While Brangäne and Marke vent their grief on either side, Isolde occupies the center silently with the sort of blank stare that makes it clear that she has already separated herself from the world of the living. On the stage this would have been harder to appreciate because of the physical distance between the singers. On the screen the effect was somewhat like that of a triptych that provides three perspectives on a common theme.
The other requirement for making a video like this work is the "video presence" of each of the singers. While the Peter Grimes video tended to make its points through gestural quirks that revealed underlying character traits, Tristan relied more on overall postural composition. Thus, every singer had to be as expressive with his/her body for video close-ups as with his/her voice. In this respect I cannot fault any of them, including Smith who probably had not previously had to work with this particular medium in mind. However, the singer who seems to have benefitted the most from this approach was Salminen, who in the second act had to cope with Wagner's text at its most long-winded and convince us that the real message was in the music. Salminen's Marke was anything but incidental to the story, and his performance under the eye of Sweete's cameras gave us a far deeper appreciation of his situation than many performances do.
Finally, the impression I got from Sweete's intermission conversation with Gelb was that this was very much a "live" (but well-rehearsed) performance on her part. She clearly had worked out what needed to be done; but the shots still had to be called in "real time," as they would in any "live" performance. If so, then, in the long-view history of video production, she may be the first director who deserves to be declared a "descendent" of Jordan Whitelaw, who did so much to enhance the experience of watching the Boston Symphony Orchestra on television. She has moved the Whitelaw strategy from the concert hall to the opera stage and now has one success to her name. Nevertheless, I suspect that her creativity is very much a product of her not being afraid to experiment; and, as we all know, not all experiments turn out the way we would like. So, since Gelb seems to have a major stake in the role she is playing in "delivering" the Met to a larger audience, she has my fondest wishes for a strong learning curve!