`First Emperor' _ Fascinating but Flawed

The Associated Press
Friday, December 22, 2006; 9:28 PM

NEW YORK -- After more than a decade of planning, East met West on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with composer Tan Dun conducting the world premiere of "The First Emperor" and Placido Domingo singing the title role.

For Tan, Thursday night's program was the first Met performance of any of his four operas. His ambitions for the production, which cost a reported $2 million to $3 million, were akin to those of China's first emperor _ using the opera to help unify culture.

"This is just beginning," the 49-year-old Tan said at a recent news conference. "I wish the opera ... will form a huge Marco Polo phenomenon. In the next wave, I hope the American culture and the world culture could be one culture _ ours. And I hope this opera could reach a lot of territory which gave us much more new idea(s), new meaning for our life today."

For that to happen, the Oscar-winning composer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" may want to consider making some revisions to this fascinating but flawed work. Without making a final judgment after only one hearing, this listener left with some disappointment. Where were the memorable melodies to take home?

The story, co-written in English by Tan and fellow Chinese emigre Ha Jin, had all the right stuff: love, defiance, tyranny, oppression, revenge and many layers of betrayal.

An emperor conquers a rival land in search of the Sage of Music, who can write the anthem that will unify the expanding realm. Along the way, the emperor's willful daughter (soprano Elizabeth Futral) rejects an arranged marriage with her father's top general (bass Hao Jiang Tian). Instead, she finds love with the composer (tenor Paul Groves).

The emperor is so determined to have the anthem that he tells the composer to wait until the general falls in battle, and then he can marry the princess. But the daughter commits suicide rather than marry the general, and the general dies. His ghost accuses the composer of poisoning him.

Grieving for the princess, the composer bites off his own tongue before being put out of his misery by the emperor with his sword.

Then the anthem is revealed. To the emperor's dismay, it's the subversive song of the slaves, a hymn more likely to unify the country against him.

The singing, with Domingo leading a strong cast a month before his 66th birthday, couldn't have been better. For Domingo, who has now mastered an extraordinary 124 roles, it was the first time he had sung a world premiere at the Met in his 38 years with the company.

His tireless tenor depicted the power of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a task made easier because his part generally was in the brawnier, lower range.

Futral and Groves also were standouts, as was Wu Hsing-Kuo, singing in Chinese in a Peking opera-style singsong in his Met debut, and mezzo Michelle DeYoung as the shaman.

The set, designed by Fan Yue, was simple and versatile _ a 36-step bleacher that, with lighting effects and other props, could depict an ancient royal court, a princess's bedroom or the Great Wall of China.

The costumes by another Oscar winner, Emi Wada, were pure eye candy, especially in the final act when the chorus glowed in silk red-oranges, yellows, greens, teal blues and violets.

The choreography _ with sleek dancing by Dou Dou Huang and synchronized movement by the masses of soldiers, subjects and slaves _ added to the Eastern spirit of the work.

In short, the ingredients coordinated by director Zhang Yimou, who also teamed with Tan in the 2002 movie "Hero," were quite effective.

So what of opera's essential ingredient _ the music?

It was filled with excitement and fine playing: pulsating drums pounded with clicking stones; long, deep chords against trilling trumpets; fluttering clarinets; a sentimental cello solo. One particularly memorable moment was the start of Act 2, when an onstage band consisting of ceramic pots and a 21-string zither-like zheng played swirling arpeggios with two harpists in the pit.

There were Pucciniesque moments of passionate tunes. Some even made allusions to the Italian composer's last masterpiece "Turandot," which was set in China. But a little repetition of melody a la Andrew Lloyd Webber, rather than of the striking of a big Chinese bell, might better jog the listener's memory.

Despite its flaws, the opera was a worthy endeavor that has virtually sold out its nine-performance run through Jan. 25.

Emperor Qin had envisioned his kingdom to last 1,000 generations. It died after only two. For "The First Emperor" to last more than one season, Tan should unsheathe his pen and make some changes.


The Jan. 13 matinee will be transmitted live in high definition into movie theaters around the world and broadcast on the Met's terrestrial radio network.


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