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Tan DUN (b. 1957)
The First Emperor (2006)
Placido Domingo (tenor) – Emperor Qin
Princess Yueyang (soprano) – Elizabeth Futral
Gao Jianli (tenor) – Paul Groves
Wu Hsing-Kuo (tenor) – Yin-Yang Master
Michelle DeYoung (soprano) – Shaman
Hao Jiang Tian (baritone) – General Wang
Suzanne Mentzer (mezzo) – Mother of Yueyang
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus/Tan Dun
Zhang Yimou (Production)
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 13 January 2007
Originally transmitted live to cinemas
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
Experience Classicsonline

This DVD, and the production it enshrines, represents one of the most exciting musical collaborations to come from the Met in a generation. You may well be slightly nervous at the thought of a Chinese opera sung in English by a Spanish tenor, but don’t be scared: the results are mostly riveting and if you give it a go then I’m confident you’ll enjoy it.

Of all the composers that have come out of contemporary China, Tan Dun is probably the one best known in the West. He wrote the film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, though he has been based in New York for the last while, he continues to employ Oriental modes of music while using a western orchestra and, broadly, western conventions. The First Emperor, his fourth opera, is his most successful so far and has been championed by the Met’s artistic director, James Levine. The Met assembled a mostly Chinese team to bring this opera to the stage, including director Zhang Yimou, whose films include Hero and House of Flying Daggers. This staging shows his cinematic vision and eye for colour, in much the same way that Anthony Minghella did for ENO’s Madam Butterfly. In fact, the presenter for this DVD is actress Zhang Ziyi, who appeared in Yimou’s films, though we only see her at the outset in a pre-recorded introduction. 

In the booklet notes Dun argues that his combination of Eastern and Western musical training had enabled him to stress not the differences between the two worlds but the ways in which they complement one another: he sums it up as “1 + 1 = 1”. The opera contains many of the things that western opera-lovers are used to: there is a love scene, an oath duet and a triumphal scene, to name but a few. What make’s Dun’s work unique, however, is that he presents these in a uniquely Oriental style. The orchestra is broadly a western one, though it is augmented by one or two eastern instruments, but Dun gets them to play in a Chinese style, such as through exaggerated glissandi on the strings. In an extra rehearsal film we see him urging the orchestra that “every beat is a down beat”. This, combined with the remarkable music he writes for them, means that the Met orchestra produce a totally unique sound. No matter how often you’ve heard them before, you’ll never have heard them sound like this, and the effect is truly spellbinding. They even chant and clap during the Intermezzo of Act 1. 

These effects, however, are not mere effects in themselves: instead they serve Dun’s compelling dramatic vision. The marriage of East and West is made explicit in the opening scene where a Yin-Yang Master, one of the stars of the Peking Opera, dances on stage and “sings” – in an indeterminate pitch – in Chinese the story as it will unfold. His deliberately eastern moves and sounds are then echoed by a more western Shaman figure (an unrecognisable Michelle DeYoung) who sings an equivalent passage in English. In the background the massed chorus of the Met stand in rows and enact the ritual with gestures and chanting, while towards the front of the stage a row of performers strike drums with stones. It’s a remarkable opening and one that left me hungry for more. Yes, it’s not what we’re used to, but I found it fascinating. 

The story, roughly, is of Qin, the brutal Emperor who first unified China, built the Great Wall and created the Terracotta Warriors to watch over him. It traces the steps he takes to consolidate his power, but we also see him destroy everything he holds dear so that in the final scene he has attained absolute power but is entirely alone. Dun created this role specially for Domingo, and the great tenor rises magnificently to the occasion. This is apparently the first time he has created a role. His voice has grown darker with age and there is tension in some of the higher writing, but his singing is as remarkable as ever and every note rings out fully at whatever range. He portrays the tortured tyrant like a wounded lion trapped in web of his own making. His duets with the other characters are tender and moving, while he conjures a strained pain for the great crowd scenes. As Jianli, Qin’s friend turned Nemesis, Paul Groves is a striking contrast: where Domingo’s voice is dark and burnished, Groves is bright and airy with a refreshing ping to it. Their duets are fantastic for this reason, and the end of their Act 2 confrontation is the only time the audience interrupt with applause. Elizabeth Futral is an equally bright, exciting coloratura soprano who sings her exacting role with a freshness to the top notes and an anguish in her equally secure lower register. Hao Jiang Tian’s dark baritone suits the authoritarian General Wang, while Michelle DeYoung copes admirably with the vast range of the Shaman: she hits top, bottom and everything in between with security and confidence. 

The staging is just as good at telling the story. The basic set is a huge row of steps which is used for every scene but subtly altered so that it can serve as an intimate boudoir for the love scene, the building site for the Great Wall and the vast arena of the final triumph. Zhang Yimou brings every aspect to life with colour and great pace. He is very good at managing the big chorus scenes – the opening and closing spectaculars are truly compelling – but honourable mention should also go to the love scene which is especially beautiful: it’s not just the couple on the bed who are subtly lit, but around them we see three dancers who play eerie Chinese instruments and evoke the depths of the lovers’ erotic passion which we do not see. All the individual singers inhabit their roles visually as well as vocally, even down to the well observed hand gestures which add extra authenticity. 

It’s not really surprising that the cast should be so ideal as Dun will have written the parts with them in mind. Equally he will have collaborated closely with his director to create his setting. All of this would count for nothing, however, were it not for Dun’s remarkable music, challenging but accessible; eastern and strange, yet Western and memorable. The key melodies, most notably the slaves’ chorus, are every bit as memorable as those in operas much older than this and the sound-world he creates is one of the most exciting I’ve come across in a long time. 

The Met took a real risk in undertaking this project, but this DVD vindicated them triumphantly and it is a credit to everyone involved, not least to EMI who have shouldered the responsibility for its issue. If you love opera but you’re looking for a challenge, or if you would like to explore something contemporary then snap it up while you can. This disc deserves to do well.

Simon Thompson


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