Monday, May 26, 2008

Metropolitan Opera – Tan Dun's The First Emperor, May 17, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Orchestra, Seat AA28 ($150).

Conductor – Tan Dun; Libretto – Ha Jin and Tan Dun; Emperor Qin – Placido Domingo, General Wang – Hao Jiang Tian, Princess Yueyang – Sarah Coburn, Gao Jianli – Paul Groves.

Story. Emperor Qin iss tired of the traditional music and wants Gao Jianli, his children friend, to write a new anthem for him. Qin conquers the Yan state and has Gao brought in as a prisoner. Gao refuses to write the anthem and goes on a hunger strike. Qin's daughter, Princesss Yueyang, goes about convincing Gao to end his hunger strike by feeding him from her own month. After the two fall in love and makes love, Yueyang, who was paralyzed from a riding accident, miraculously regains use of her legs. Yueyang was promised to General Wang and the Princess commits suicide when the Emperor forces her to marry Wang. As Qin gets ready to ascend to the throne, Yueyang's ghost appears to tell Qin that she couldn't sacrifice her love for her country. This is followed by the ghost of Wang, who was killed by Gao. Finally Gao shows up, commits suicide by biting off his own tongue. Qin then asks the anthem to be sung, and is shocked to discover it is the song of the slaves being forced to build the great wall.

I was looking forward to seeing this opera after listening to Tan Dun's piano concerto played by Lang Lang. While “modern,” the concerto was still well-structured enough for me to make sense of it, and it also showcased Lang Lang's ability, which was what Tan set out to do. I was somewhat disappointed by the opera, although there were many impressive aspects to it.

Tan Dun talks about the three techniques he used to bring out the three colors of Qin culture: tri-tone as black, continuance of the fourth as white, and highest to lowest note as red. While somewhat interesting, the motifs were not particularly appealing, and soon became monotonous. Unfortunately, Tan seemed to have fallen in love with this discovery and saturated the opera with them.

Other than the Peking-opera style introduction by the Yin-yang Master, which was in Chinese, the opera was sung in English. I was glad they had subtitles as I found the sung dialog difficult to follow. Placido Domingo sang the role of Qin. One of the famous “three tenors” with Pavoratti and Carreras, Domingo has an active schedule as a director, conductor, and performer. While he was good, I always find his voice to be a bit weak. I am glad I had a chance to see him though: I had seen him conduct a few times before, this was the first time I saw him sing. A couple of Asian singers were in the operas (e.g., General Wang and the shaman).

The staging is mostly based on what I would describe as bleachers. Nonetheless, it was effective and pleasant. I find the colors to be well designed, and the costumes add a lot of glamor appropriate for a regal setting. The masks worn on the back by the Yin-yang masters, which make them transform from dark to light by turning around, are quite ingenious (I assume this technique is well-known in the trade.)

Although Qin was indeed the first Chinese emperor who unified the country by conquering many of the surrounding warring states, and started the Great Wall, he was generally considered a brutal and ruthless person. While the opera makes no excuses for his brutality, it does illustrate the more human aspects of him. I didn't know this story until I came across this opera, which is supposed to be based on an account by the well-known historian Sima Qian (c. 145-85 BCE).

When I was a child, I had seen movies where people committed suicide by biting off their tongues. I imagine the profuse bleeding would be the cause of death. In this opera Qin “helped” Gao by stabbing him with a sword afterwards. Somewhat like hari-kiri. Macabre, but makes sense if one thinks about it.

I am glad to have seen this opera, I'm not sure I'll want to see it again, though.

The New York Times reviewer thought some of the musical passages outlived their welcome, and that the opera could be shorter still (it was trimmed by about half an hour from its 2007 debut).

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