One of the most highly anticipated cultural events of the season, the Metropolitan Opera’s world premiere of Tan Dun and Ha Jin’s “The First Emperor” has been more than a decade in the making. An ambitious, earnest attempt to blend Chinese and Western opera, it commands respect but fails to engage its audience. Leaning more heavily toward the Orient than the Occident, it emerges as a lengthy, serious and static pageant, its pacing tedious even for opera auds trained to sit through all five hours of “Parsifal.”
New operas are at an unfair disadvantage, as they are reviewed by the world press at the first performance, while Broadway musicals benefit from weeks of road tryouts and previews. Perhaps “The First Emperor” will go through its own fine-tuning process during its run of nine Met performances and will be a more effective work by the time it has its second life at Los Angeles Opera in September 2009. At present, however, it is a long, trying night in the opera house.
The libretto, by Ha Jin and the composer, was inspired by Lu Wei’s screenplay “The Legend of the Bloody Zheng,” which became the basis for 1996 film “The Emperor’s Shadow,” and by Sima Qian’s Historical Record, a chronicle from the 1st century BCE. It is set during the reign of Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BCE), the “first emperor” of the newly united China: Qin ordered the building of the Great Wall and was famously interred with an army of life-sized terra-cotta soldiers to guard his tomb.
The opera concerns Qin’s quest for an anthem for his new country and his ill-fated decision to force a rebellious but talented young composer to write it. The composer’s subsequent love affair with the emperor’s crippled daughter leads to colossal tragedy, including the deaths of three principal characters.
While such material would seem ideal for operatic treatment, the work is bombastic yet curiously drained of energy.
Tan’s orchestration is often excitingly inventive, with the use of many ancient instruments as well as original sounds such as drums pounded with stones rather than sticks. But his admirable exploration of Chinese musical and vocal styles ultimately leaves Western ears little with which to relate. The score surges sporadically into an excitingly melodic Puccinian sweep, which dissipates moments later. And so it goes for nearly 3½ hours.
The libretto occasionally achieves some memorable poetic imagery, but it is in English set to an often-atonal Chinese vocal line of leaps, wails and melismas. The result is phrases and even syllables fractured into incomprehensibility. The Met’s surtitle system was not a luxury in this case but a necessity.
Composer Tan, who also conducted, previously collaborated with director Zhang Yimou on the film “Hero.” One would expect an exciting, highly cinematic staging, but Zhang has taken the opposite tack.
His production, like the opera itself, is slow and static, played out on Fan Yue’s abstract unit set, which consists largely of bleacher-like risers and hanging cables. Duane Schuler’s lighting emphasizes inky blackness. Only Emi Wada’s costumes offer striking, jaw-droppingly beautiful bursts of color and flowing patterns to break the prevailing gloom.
The title role is played by Placido Domingo who, at 65, qualifies as the leather-lunged Rocky Balboa of tenors. His intense performance and vocal power make few concessions to age, but this Chinese emperor singing English with a heavy Mexican accent strains credibility.
As his daughter, soprano Elizabeth Futral sings sweetly, even in the taxing upper reaches of her role. Futral has always been possessed of an expressive physicality; she limns her character with lovely, willowy movements.
Mezzo Suzanne Mentzer is a strong presence as the emperor’s wife, and she uses her powerful lower register to make thunderous contralto sounds.
Michelle de Young, as a shaman, rarely gets to display her lovely natural singing voice: She has little more to do than pose, shriek and bellow, though she does it well.
Paul Groves’ firmly focused lyric tenor is a pleasure to hear in the role of the composer. As a general who is about to marry the Princess, Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian offers solid sound and, remarkably, the clearest English diction of anyone onstage.