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Seen and Heard International Opera  Review



Tan Dun: The First Emperor (2006, world premiere): Soloists, Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera, Tan Dun (cond), Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 26.12.2006 and 13.01.2007 (BH)




Libretto by Ha Jin and Tan Dun


Conductor: Tan Dun

Production: Zhang Yimou

Set Designer: Fan Yue

Costume Designer: Emi Wada

Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler

Co-Director: Wang Chaoge

Choreographer: Dou Dou Huang


Yin-Yang Master, official geomancer: Wu Hsing-Kuo

Shaman: Michelle DeYoung

Emperor Qin: Plácido Domingo

Chief Minister: Haijing Fu

General Wang: Hao Jiang Tian

Princess Yueyang, daughter of the emperor: Elizabeth Futral

Mother of Yueyang: Susanne Mentzer

Gao Jianli, a musician: Paul Groves

Guard: Danrell Williams

Principal dancer: Dou Dou Huang

Zheng player: Qi Yao


Including a press preview of Act I, I have now seen Tan Dun’s The First Emperor two-and-a-half times, including the live, high-definition video broadcast last week at a local movie theater in Manhattan.  I wish I could say that its virtues (and there are more than a few) grew with each viewing, but mostly the repeated exposure mostly served to heighten the disappointments.  Nevertheless, creating new works is a risky enterprise, and the Met should be encouraged to do more of them.

All of this said, the first fifteen minutes are stunning, as intriguing as anything the Met has ever done.  As the Yin-Yang Master, who introduces and occasionally comments on the story, Wu Hsing-Kuo leaps and whirls across the stage in a gorgeous costume designed by Emi Wada, perhaps best known for her Academy Award-winning work in Akira Kurosawa’s film, Ran.  Wu emerges from the wings with his face painted red, but when he whirls around he reveals a serene, Buddha-like mask on the other side.  His fusion of traditional narration and movement is riveting and his presence is one of the production’s great strengths.

The curtain then rises to reveal the immense set by Fan Yue, row upon row of stone blocks hung from cables, able to be raised and lowered individually or in groups.  Behind each one stands a member of the chorus.  Right down in front stretches a row of a dozen Chinese percussionists, each behind a large drum played with a pair of black stones, which can also be knocked together, creating rhythmic patterns more complex than with the drums alone.  At stage left are sets of black ceramic tuned bowls, and the zheng, a traditional instrument somewhat resembling a zither but with a sound somewhere between a harp and a steel guitar, played with passion by Qi Yao, who made its distinctive sound mesh beautifully with the Met’s musicians.  Most people I polled could not recall anything so unusual on the Met’s stage, ever.

Tan Dun’s language seems of two camps: on one hand, a vivid, texturally diverse palette using heavy percussion amperage, and on the other, a heartfelt, borderline saccharine use of what sound like populist anthems.  Whether these can be successful playmates is not really resolved here, and I can imagine audience members being fond of one style or the other, but not both.  Certainly at the second performance the audience seemed to warm up to the Puccini-esque flowerings, but my thoughts drifted to the novel idea of Tan writing an opera with an orchestra entirely of percussion instruments.  One of the high points in the second half is the use of a bian zhong, an enormous gong hulking at stage right and almost as large as a small car, that is repeatedly struck with a large pole, making an ominous, resonant tolling that could be signaling the end of the universe.


Elizabeth Futral as Yueyang

The visionary director Zhang Yimou, praised for films like Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and House of Flying Daggers (the latter is one of the most beautiful of its type I have seen), here seems to run out of ideas very quickly, and in general, the action is formal, slow, and without the multiple frissons of his films.  The concrete blocks, formidable as they appear on first viewing, ultimately don’t seem to offer many creative possibilities, and the later scenes were basically static tableaux, albeit shimmering ones.

As a conductor, Mr. Tan presumably made the best case for his work and got a large variety of sounds out of the orchestra and the Met chorus.  But the back-and-forth of the more traditional music eventually began to sound as populist as early Shostakovich, such as his Hymn to the Forest.  I suspect that this slightly naïve sounding style may be inherent in the genre, one that Tan Dun decided to mine for its historical resonance, but to my ears nothing emerged as striking as those pairs of black rocks.

The singers were often quite good, although Mr. Tan’s tessiture at times seemed to tax them beyond reason.  Elizabeth Futral had many lustrous moments as Princess Yueyang, despite some treacherous, prolonged passages at the very highest end of her range.  Susanne Mentzer (who recently wowed us in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges at the New York Philharmonic) sang warmly and was touching as her mother.  Michelle DeYoung, towering in a mesmerizing, slightly campy costume, used every bit of her huge range, underlining the arcs of her voice by unfurling two slinky sets of long fingernails.  Paul Groves may have been the best of all, with many gorgeous scenes as the musician Gao Jianli, who ultimately dies for his love and his art.  The bass Hao Jiang Tian, renowned for playing Timur in Turandot, also impressed as General Wang, Haijing Fu did a fine job as the chief minister, and in a small but significant turn, Dou Dou Huang was a model of how dance can energize an operatic stage.

Plácido Domingo as Emperor Qin

And what more can be said about Plácido Domingo, who at age 66 seems indestructible?  But his artistry goes far beyond mere longevity.  In the challenging role of Emperor Qin, he was able to pull together strands of feeling that made his entrances real events, and plus, he just sounded fantastic.  The burnished tone of his voice continues to impress, as does his acting, although he like the others was somewhat tethered in his stage action.  The precipitous steps of the set may have contributed somewhat to this; I can’t imagine anyone navigating them with anything other than trepidation, to avoid tumbling down into the orchestra pit.

As a fan of both the composer and the esteemed director, I had very high hopes for The First Emperor, given its starry cast and creative collaborators.  As it turned out, the three-hour evening had enough to keep one’s interest, but ultimately failed to persuade that it is an “opera” in the sense that most people understand the term.  The director’s seeming reticence in amplifying the plot’s “big moments” seemed to work against the confines of the traditional genre.  One friend actually thought it closer to an oratorio, since the drama is somewhat low key, with climactic events couched in terms more symbolic than explicit.  More dramatic urgency would have made for a more potent evening.

At the sold-out video broadcast, I arrived a half-hour prior to curtain time and still had to find a seat down front, in the first five rows.  The audience appeared to be a mix of Plácido fans of a certain age, students from nearby New York University, and Asian admirers of the composer and the director.  Seats were at such a premium that a number of people were seated on the carpeted floor, their backs propped up against the balcony.  The director was veteran Brian Large, who placed cameras right up near the stage, offering views much closer than those that could be realized in the actual Met house.  In fact, one could occasionally hear the prompter, which was almost more fascinating than distracting.  The close-ups also had an unintended bonus (perhaps): in the second act, they helped disguise the dearth of motion onstage.  Filmed productions can sometimes transform a live event into a slightly different animal, and it didn’t surprise me that the audience response to the filmed version was more positive than for the live one.  But whatever the opinions about the opera itself, this new initiative is a clear “wow” and yet another mark that the Met is off and running in the Peter Gelb era.



Bruce Hodges


Pictures © Metropolitan Opera, New York

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