The Familiar Kingdom Of 'The First Emperor'

Elizabeth Futral brings flair to the role of the princess in
Elizabeth Futral brings flair to the role of the princess in "The First Emperor." (By Ken Howard -- Metropolitan Opera Via Associated Press)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006

NEW YORK -- Eighty years ago the premiere of Puccini's "Turandot," a slender Chinese fairy tale smothered in feverish music, marked the beginning of the end of the great era of Italian opera. On Thursday night, the Metropolitan Opera gave the premiere of a new opera by a Chinese composer, staged and directed by an almost entirely Chinese production team.

Tan Dun's "The First Emperor," sung mostly in English, was a lavish affair, handsomely done, with Placido Domingo giving it star power in the title role. But will works like this accomplish what so many people hope for: the revival, through the infusion of foreign vitality, of an art form that has had very few success stories recently?

The opera arrives at an exciting moment for the Met, the nation's largest and most influential company. Two years ago, it announced that Peter Gelb, a record executive, would replace longtime General Manager Joseph Volpe. This season is the first of Gelb's tenure, and his changes have been fast and stunning. A big ship that wasn't supposed to turn easily is now charting a new course.

A week from today, the company will begin sending live, high-definition broadcasts of its productions to dozens of movie theaters around the country. (More information about these simulcasts, and about "The Last Emperor," is available at http://www.metopera.org.) In October, it began live Internet streaming of performances, for free. There was a splashy outdoor broadcast of "Madama Butterfly" in Times Square, and an appearance by its singers on "Late Show With David Letterman." A few people in the opera world are cautiously optimistic; most are wholeheartedly cheering Gelb's efforts to widen the company's appeal.

But Gelb can't change everything, and perhaps the most profound problem he faces is how to present new operas that will be artistically substantial and musically agreeable to a conservative public. The new Tan Dun opera shows the parameters of the problem.

It is an opera to be reckoned with but hard to love. If "Turandot" was an Italian melodrama with some Chinese decoration, "The First Emperor" is a thoroughgoing survey of the basic tropes of Western opera through Chinese-tinted glasses. The fundamental conflicts that have fueled music drama since a bunch of Florentine aesthetes invented the form more than 400 years ago keep popping up, almost but not quite disguised beyond recognition. Love vs. duty. The crown that weighs heavy on the king's head. The destructive power of extreme emotions.

Written by Tan and the novelist Ha Jin (whose "Waiting" won the National Book Award in 1999), the story recounts the effort of the first emperor of China to consolidate his kingdom through the creation of a unifying musical anthem. The composer chosen to write that theme is a former boyhood friend who makes the unfortunate decision to sleep with the emperor's daughter.

The story, which at three hours drags on too long, is worked out in conventional operatic set pieces. There is a love duet, a tortured monologue for the emperor, a slaves' chorus, a coronation scene and some ghostly visitations from the emperor's victims. Opera lovers will be able to pick through these plot clues and find the obvious precursors in stories set by Verdi and especially Mussorgsky.

If the basic building blocks are conventional, there are subtle though profound differences in how they function. Elizabeth Futral sings the role of the lovely though flighty princess with flair and silvery tone, in a very high and florid style, which has been the convention for such roles since at least the time of Mozart. Domingo, though he is a tenor, sings in a comfortable midrange much of the time, and with the baritonal heft that has gathered over the years in his voice. That tonal gravitas is the long-established essence of kingly characters. But the composer is using these conventions rather like masks. They are so conventional that they seem blank, a means of hiding the characters' inner life rather than an expression of it.

Musically, Tan's style is heavy on percussive effects, and sometimes novel ones. Chinese instruments round out the ensemble, with Tibetan singing bowls playing a prominent and ethereal role. Western instruments that are capable of sliding, especially the strings, bend pitches in an approximation of micro-tonal ornament.

The composer has compared his musical language to calligraphy, and the comparison is apt. Vocal lines tend to fixate on one repeated, basic gesture -- for instance, a large leap up followed by a slow and sinuous descent. These gestures take on a visual quality as the music unfolds as a succession of arches, or upside-down check marks.

This grows tiring after a while. The music has coherence, holding together through the recurrence of familiar motifs throughout its long scenes. But it only occasionally rises above the sort of music that opera composers deploy to work their way through text, functional music that gets the storytelling done. And much of the musical satisfaction comes from listening to the voices purely as vocal objects -- Paul Groves's supple tenor, Futral's warblings, Susanne Mentzer's dark mezzo-soprano -- without the blessing (or curse) of a melodic line that stays with you.

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