Archive for November, 2008

Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. EMI Classic DVD reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008.

This tremendous Met production offers much to enjoy. First off, there are no silly plot elements about aristocratic brothers and sisters cross-dressing and disguised as servants who fall in love with each other. The plot is simple and circles around the strong willed person who unified China and built the Wall at the cost of crushing the life out of his people and everyone close to him. His single desire in the portion of history shown in this opera is to get an anthem written that will glorify his legacy. Placido Domingo convincingly plays the emperor whose deeds inspire terror as well as pity. In an ironic ending, the anthem turns out to be the death-longing song of the slaves who built the wall.

As spectacle, this production is awesome. It combines the values of Peking and Western operas. The set by Fan Yue, a staircase with more than 600 huge stone blocks hanging from ropes ingeniously lit to suggest either the great wall or the imperial palace fascinates with its originality. The 400 costumes designed by Oscar winning Emi Wada are magnificent. In fact, the visuals all push the imagination well beyond its limits. Chief among the other exotic pleasures are the performances of Wu Hsing-Kuo as the literally two-facedYin-Yang Master, and Dou Dou Huang the principal male dancer. Safe to say you have never seen anything like it this side of a Peking Opera. Also, the close-ups of Qi Yao, the zheng player, fascinate with her dexterity and dramatic style. It is a great bonus to get shots of Tan Dun conducting with passion and precision.

The principals all sing beautifully and the chorus is monumental. If there is a reason for caution it is that the production, as filmed here runs 177 slow moving minutes. The arias are sung in English. Even the simplest phrase, word or syllable can be elaborated musically for a long time. If you don’t like that, you might get a wee bit impatient. That said, Tan Dun’s score is challenging and worth taking some time with.

The New York critics gave the opera a musical thumbs down. The audience filmed at the Met on Dec. 21, 2006 were wild about it. Either way, there is nothing like it that I know of, so if you have a sense of adventure, and are patient, give it a spin.

Tan Dun, The First Emperor, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Tan Dun.  EMI Classics. 2 DVD’s