Theater Reviews

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Metropolitan Opera, New York
Through Jan. 25


There's a genuine sense of event status inherent in the Metropolitan Opera's world-premiere presentation of "The First Emperor," the new work by Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun, who scored "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

With a libretto co-written by Tan and National Book Award-winning novelist Ha Jin ("Waiting"), direction by filmmaker Zhang Yimou ("House of Flying Daggers") and a starring turn by opera superstar Placido Domingo, it's not surprising that the production already has sold out its nine-performance run.

Unfortunately, in this case, massive expectations are likely to be replaced with feelings of disappointment. Although the work has many admirable aspects, including a score that ambitiously attempts to fuse Western and Eastern musical styles, it is unable to overcome its many static aspects, including, surprisingly, Zhang's staging.

Adapted from a screenplay that also served as the basis for the film "The Emperor's Shadow," the work deals with an episode in the life of Qin Shi Huang (Domingo), who became ancient China's first ruler after his violent merging of its warring states in second century B.C.; it was he who began the construction of the Great Wall. The story line involves his ordering of an old boyhood friend, Gao Jianli (Paul Groves), to write an anthem for the new empire. But the composer, who lost his mother and his home as a result of Qin's ruthlessness, resists. Meanwhile, the ruler's daughter Yueyang (Elizabeth Futral), though already promised to one of his generals (Hao Jiang Tian), falls in love with Gao, with predictably tragic results for everyone concerned.

Performed on a simple set consisting largely of bleacherlike risers, stone slabs and heavy ropes, the production often has the feel of a staged oratorio. Ha's libretto is frequently awkward and mostly lugubrious, while Tan's dense score rarely takes flight. The music has been arranged in highly inventive fashion, with the Western orchestra augmented by musicians playing such instruments as chimes, bells, pots, tiles, water bowls and a 15-string zheng (zither). While not unmelodic, it too often suffers from a strained quality, as if the composer (who is also conducting all nine performances) was trying too hard to show off his clearly diverse musical influences.

Domingo, at 65, still manages to be highly impressive with his full-bodied singing, and his authoritative stage presence serves the role well. Futral sings gorgeously as the doomed daughter, and Groves displays a well-modulated tenor voice as the ill-fated composer. All of the supporting performances are quite effective, particularly Michelle De Young's striking turn as an ominous shaman. Particularly noteworthy are the seemingly hundreds of gorgeously colored costumes designed by Emi Wada.

A co-production with the Los Angeles Opera, the work will be seen there in fall 2009, and the Jan. 13 matinee performance will be beamed live to participating movie theaters nationwide.

THE FIRST EMPEROR
Presented by the Metropolitan Opera
A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Opera
Credits:
Composer: Tan Dun
Libretto: Ha Jin, Tan Dun
Director: Zhang Yimou
Conductor: Tan Dun
Set designer: Fan Yue
Costume designer: Emi Wada
Lighting designer: Duane Schuler
Co-director: Wang Chaoge
Choreography: Dou Dou Huang
Cast:
Emperor Qin: Placido Domingo
Princess Yueyang: Elizabeth Futral
Gao Jianli: Paul Groves
Yueyang's Mother: Susanne Mentzer
General Wang: Hao Jiang Tian
Shaman: Michelle De Young
Chief Minister: Haijing Fu
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