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The First Emperor

Opening Day: 20 September 2007
Genre: Opera
Composer and Conductor: Tan Dun
Libretto: Ha Jin & Tan Dun
Director: Zhang Yimou
Ensemble: Placido Domingo, Elizabeth Futral, Michelle DeYoung, Paul Groves, Wu Hsing-Kuo, Hao Jiang Tian, Susanne Mentzer, Haijing Fu, Danrell Williams, Dou Dou Huang (principal dancer) with The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, co-produced with the Los Angeles Opera
RunTime: 3 hr 10 mins
Released By: GV
Rating: TBA

Quality live opera big screen. The idea, though not new per se, is so simple, so clever that one wonders why this was not done any earlier. Opera to the masses – Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, the possibilities are endless.

The distributors should be applauded. But can one be introduced to this great ennobling art form through the cinema? The Magic Flute, with Mozart at his melodious and charming best, was a brilliant choice, which could engage especially the very young. However, even though Tan Dun’s modern age behemoth The First Emperor boasts some of the biggest and brightest talents from both East and West, one cannot help but wonder if this was a wise choice as opposed to the other more accessible works which are already available.

Tan Dun continues his display of love and passion for Peking Opera. The opening ‘overture’ already presents the audience with narrator, the Yin Yang Master (Wu Hsing-Kuo), right out of classic Peking Opera. This promised so much – and it delivered, with the following number for chorus, Chinese drums and the Shaman (Michelle DeYoung). This was spine tingling to hear, as it was to behold the spectacle on stage!

He proves that he is a masterful composer, a true genius of our age. He had always been amalgamating Chinese and Western musical elements from his early Symphony 1997 for the Hong Kong handover, his ethomusical endeavour, The Map, to his more recent stage works, The Peony Pavillion, Marco Polo etc and of course his Oscar winning film score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A rising neo-nationalist composer indeed. Here, his trademark use of heavy percussion is retained. The continued infusion of Chinese music (dialect inflections) as well as constant downbeats in the music maybe rather jarring for ears more accustomed to the Western idiom. I was particularly taken by the re-imagined music of the Chin court, with the use of water filled ceramic urns, as well as the juxtaposition of the Chinese zheng (zither/lute) with the two harps. These are just some fascinating new sounds and tonal palettes to listen out for.

Nonetheless, with Tan Dun declaring ‘Western opera to be dead’, there does seem a slight regression of opera arias of old. There are moments where the plot and action totally stop to accommodate the soloists causing the opera to run into ‘heavenly length’. So do dress and make yourself comfortable. As it progresses to the second act, both performers (even Domingo) and audience seem rather wary and tired. Though we might be living in a post Wagnerian era, there are moments where one does feel that the arias and other numbers could have moved the action and plot faster. The libretto, co-written by Ha Jin (War Trash, The Crazed) and Tan Dun himself, is poetic and beautiful but too slow moving with an elongated plot such as this.

Placido Domingo, whom Tan Dun wrote the opera for, delighted the audience with some sensational singing. Though Tan Dun was clever to out Domingo in his comfortable mid range, the role of Emperor Qin is a nasty beast to sing and Domingo proves that he is still one of the greatest voices of our time. Elizabeth Furtal as Princess Yueyang pulled off her part well, but came across as slightly uninvolved, and worse, at times detached from the rest of the ensemble. The lyrical tenor, Paul Groves, was mediocre at best and his Gao JianLi was mostly forgettable. Compliments however the Michelle DeYoung (The Shaman), who dominated the stage with her presence and voice, and as well as Hao Jian Tian as General Wang and Susanne Mentzer (Mother of YueYang) for some deep and heart felt singing. The Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus are to be applauded as well, though some of the close ups of the orchestra do show tell tale signs that the members were perhaps not engaged at certain points.

The set of The First Emperor is immense and the direction by Zhang Yimou can only be described as first rate. What struck the audience the most is the huge see-through ‘stair’ that was built on the stage. Clever use of lighting (which was good throughout) and ropes enabled the set to transform itself into numerous scenes – from the Chin court, the grand Imperial Chambers and of course the Great Wall itself. The costumes are also all immaculately designed with meticulous effort.

Indeed, The First Emperor, one of the most expensive and largest modern operas to date, is not to be missed - but only for seasoned opera aficionados and the occasional art house crowd. It may appeal to some lovers of modern dance, but scenes with superb principal dancer Dou Dou Huang and ensemble are relatively limited. By far, critics have not been kind. Still, The First Emperor has been completely sold out at the Metropolitan Opera every night since its premiere and a new additional extended season has been announced to cater to growing demand. It can be said that its current popularity is mostly due to the novelty of Chinese music amongst Western audiences. Only time will tell if Tan Dun’s The First Emperor will fade into obscurity or be remembered as a modern operatic masterpiece.

(A stunning and exciting modern day operatic spectacle – not to be missed.)



Review: Darren Sim
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