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This is Tan Dun's fourth opera. In it he successfully attempts to fuse
aspects of traditional Chinese music with the western classical
tradition. The New York Metropolitan orchestra is supplemented by,
amongst other novelties, a troupe of drummers, men rubbing stones
together and an excellent Zheng player. The Zheng looks a bit like a
harp lying on its side and must be very painful to play because Qi Yao,
the soloist has fingers covered in sticking plaster, rather like me
after a heavy session of home improvement.
The problem for me is in the English libretto, composed jointly by Tan Dun himself and by Ha Jin. The words just do not fit the music, which, quite clearly, is composed to fit Chinese speech rhythms. It is as though Tan Dun conceived the work in Chinese and then translated his thoughts to create the libretto.
Plácido Domingo, at an age when he could be forgiven for slowing down slightly, bravely tackles the title role of the Emperor Qin. He has some magnificent musical moments, particularly during the first act, despite the fact that he is singing Chinese voice rhythms, in English with a strong Spanish accent. I complained about the otiose English subtitles for the Met's Magic Flute a couple of weeks ago but subtitles were never more necessary than in this opera for anyone who wants to follow what is going on.
Domingo apart, this production is a triumph for Soprano Elizabeth Futral. She is a sensational Princess Yueyang and is the most successful of the soloists in combining the eastern and western elements in the music and in making sense of the libretto. Rather naughtily, in the making of film, Tan Dun tells her, in front of the the other principals, that she needs further coaching because she is not aristocratic enough during her lovemaking scene. She looks rather peeved but I think she could justifiably have impaled him on his own Zheng.
Nothing so dramatic occurs on stage. The costumes are a visual delight but the production is strangely static. The principals perform on a narrow stage with ten tiers of chorus behind them, so we get the impression more of an oratorio, something like Handel's Messiah, rather than an opera. I have to confess that I nodded off halfway through the second act as the chorus, building the Great Wall were singing "How long is this wall?" I awoke about twenty minutes later as Domingo was singing: "Lord of Heaven, how long?" I do not think that I missed much.
As a big opera fan and of Placido Domingo, I was all for seeing this
Met production of Tan Dan's The First Emperor, an opera I had never
heard before. There were definitely some good things, but there was
also a number of things I didn't like so much. First off, the
costumes(apart from the two male leads, very unflattering), lighting
and sets are stunning and further advantaged by the always great High
Defintion that this Met series is shot in.
The First Emperor itself is an interesting enough opera especially in its fusion of Eastern and Western music, but at the end of the day I found nothing exceptional about it, finding that not much stuck in my head afterwards especially in the more conventional territory. The libretto also has little connection to the musical lines with some of the more poetic lines coming across as silly(such as snow fluttering), and the story is over-simplistic and in places too broad.
Other than the production values, there are other virtues, primarily the dancing which is very colourful, especially Dau Dong Huang's in the second act. Also to the excellent orchestral playing and the opening and closing scenes were very effective. There is some great principal singing. I think the best is Elizabeth Futral. Some of her music is on the bizarre side, but she commands the stage wonderfully and she does what she can with her music even if her voice with an occasionally too wide vibrato is not exactly what I call beautiful.
Placido Domingo does bravely in the title role. That said, coming from somebody who has been a big fan of Domingo for years now, I don't think this is him at his best. That is not to say he's bad, just that he's done better. Some of his top may have some huskiness possibly because his voice has darkened over the years, but the tone generally does have its usual burnished clarity and he sings musically. His acting is commanding if not quite becoming the character as Domingo had such a talent for.
If there was a letdown to Domingo's performance, it was his diction. In fairness his diction was never the crystal clear diction in that you could dictate what he sang(a la Pavarotti), but in his prime especially there was always attention to detail in that area. Here he sings his music with a rather too heavy accent. The vowels are good, but consonants are too soft and hard to hear sometimes. Domingo is not the only one though to suffer from not so good diction, there are numerous times in the performance where the singers sound tongue-tied for some reason, causing me to do something I rarely do watching opera, put on the subtitles.
The rest of the principals are good but not great. Paul Groves' singing is confident and he has no problem hitting high Cs, and Michelle DeYoung's mezzo soprano voice has a big range from low F to high C. On the other hand, apart from Futral and Domingo, the acting is not great in all honesty. It does not help that the staging is so static with exception of the dancing. What goes on on stage is very minimal; not only that, it doesn't always follow the libretto either, such as showing a scene in the prison where Gao is being detained when First Emperor says "bring him hither".
All in all, it didn't quite work for me, but it was interesting enough. 5/10 Bethany Cox
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