Sunday, January 14, 2007

The First Emperor

So I wasn’t really planning ahead to see any of the much-discussed movie theater broadcasts the Metropolitan Opera is doing this year, but yesterday things fell into place to see the new Tan Dun opera The First Emperor at a theater in nearby Branford. The presentation’s quite good; I’m not usually a watch-opera-on-television type but I can tell that having it on the big screen is a big plus. It’s a high-definition broadcast, and the picture & sound are both quite good.

The hilariously bizarre highlight may have been one of the intermission featurettes, a short live interview with Placido Domingo given by Beverly Sills. At some point during this mini puff piece, Sills came out with a sentence that started “Clearly you’re one of the greatest tenors of all time” and somehow ended with “. . . and now we’ve got David Beckham coming to the United States to play hockey, to bring hockey to the Americans for the first time.” Domingo quietly corrected her and went on to state earnestly, fully costumed as a Chinese emperor, that he appreciated all American sports and believed that there was room for soccer here too.

The opera itself doesn’t hold up well, especially in the second act, which drags mercilessly towards the end. Tan Dun’s music is worthwhile listening, and there were enough musical high points to get by, particularly in violent percussion-driven sections. His lyrical writing leans heavily on Chinese-style melodies, and too heavily on tenderly moderate tempos and similar orchestral underscores. Domingo was fine as the emperor, and Elizabeth Futral sang fantastically as his daughter, but the characters are weakly drawn and the word setting is awful, with lines awkwardly smushed into their melodies. There are all kinds of things wrong with the dramatic pacing and plot: the story takes forever to get started, and at the end, climactic events that could easily have been portrayed onstage are instead described after the fact.

A long prelude scene introduces the opera against an epic historical backdrop, the founding of the Chinese empire; but the course changes immediately into a smaller character-driven story with little relation to the time or place. You can read a synopsis of the plot here; the story tries to be about both forbidden love and artistic morality, but the two themes don’t ever intertwine or reinforce each other.

Most of the dialogue is bland, and some of it is downright awful. During a seduction scene the princess uncorks the line “Taste my kissing soup”—try to describe this without using the word “euuuggh.”

Tan Dun, with a collaborator, developed the story and wrote the libretto, and it seems like he’s in over his head there.

But, worth going to. At least in movie form. The rest of the Met run is sold out anyway, and I doubt this opera is going to resurface too much in the future.


Blogger Nate said...

Neat. I heard bits and pieces of the Met's live radio broadcast, since as on most early Saturday afternoons I was napping and setting my clock radio alarm to go off periodically in a vain attempt to actually be awake during the day. Some very lush, shimmering, romantic music in there -- I'd actually recommend not being fully awake for it, it got less interesting when I was more cogent -- but in what little I heard I'd agree about the lines being set awkwardly. Didn't hear enough to judge the plot. "Taste my kissing soup" sounds like it should be shouted out by Fred Schneider somewhere in an off-color B-52's party song.

I should bother to track down at least one of the movie theater Met showings, though. One day...

1/15/2007 12:30 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

The romantic aspect of the opera's music does work well (word setting, again, aside) -- Tan Dun can hit emotional/dramatic without being overly heart-on-sleeve. He wrote the soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon among some other movies, and he's got a good cinematic sense.

I feel like I've heard good things about his Water Passion After St. Matthew, but I might just be thinking of marketing materials from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

1/15/2007 9:36 PM  

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