Saturday, January 13, 2007

The First Emperor in HD

Emperor Qin.............Plácido Domingo
Princess Yueyang........Elizabeth Futral
Gao Jianli..............Paul Groves
Chief Minister..........Haijing Fu
General Wang............Hao Jiang Tian
Mother of Yueyang.......Susanne Mentzer
Yin-Yang Master.........Wu Hsing-Kuo [Debut]
Shaman..................Michelle DeYoung
Guard...................Danrell Williams [Debut]
Principal Dancer........Dou Dou Huang [Debut]
Zheng player............Qi Yao [Debut]

Conductor...............Tan Dun [Debut]
Production..............Zhang Yimou [Debut]

I am a big fan of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so you can predict where I am going with Tan Dun's The First Emperor from the Metropolitan Opera. What he is trying to do is create a fully integrated western and eastern opera. This is a big chunk. In his own words [more or less] he has included the king of western opera, Placido Domingo, and the king of the Peking Opera, Wu Hsing-Kuo. The latter plays a kind of master of ceremonies, master of yin and yang, who sings and dances entirely in the style of the Peking Opera and introduces us to the characters.

I don't have to tell the plot, do I? Placido is the Emperor who was prisoner as a child with Gao Jianli, also a tenor. He admired his music and wants him to write his coronation anthem. Daughter Yueyang falls for Jianli. Things go from bad to worse.

The blending of east and west occurs at many levels. In the pit we have a standard orchestra with some unusual percussion. I'm sure I saw them playing the 8 tympani with the cover disks left on. Then in a strictly orchestral section between scenes anyone who wasn't playing vocalized short percussive notes.

On the stage is a zheng, a multi-stringed instrument resembling a samisen, which provided the accompaniment to one of Elizabeth Futral's arias. There was also a set of ceramic pots that were struck, rocks played by the chorus, and some kind of dangling pot that was played with a violin bow. The chorus also made a lot of percussive sounds in the first act, while also performing in a very western choral style.

The opera singers sang in a western pointillistic style rather like Lulu,--I thought this was passe--while trying to appear Chinese in their costumes and movements. As I have said elsewhere, pointillistic singing that jumps around to very high and low notes proved not difficult to sing. In the film between the acts Elizabeth Futral said as much.

The movie theater technical issues were much worse this week. Despite the very large crowd, the theater chain didn't seem to think the film needed an attendant in the booth. The sound went out for about ten minutes in the first act, giving us Norah Jones for a brief moment. At the intermission and at the end the lights never came up, resulting in a lot of old people stumbling around in the dark. The sound was too loud again.

My overall impression was positive. The most unfortunate part of this opera is that the dramatic arc is unvaryingly downward. The story becomes grimmer and grimmer, and the music more and more somber. The first half is quite exciting and made a wonderful impression. After that it was mezzo mezzo.


Anne said...
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Dr.B said...

I forgot to mention that twice you could hear the prompter giving cues to Placido. There must have been a microphone nearby.

Anonymous said...

There didn't need to be a microphone around for the prompter to be heard. I saw this in the house, sitting in rear orchestra underneath the balcony (one of the worst places accoustically in the whole house), and I could occasionally hear the prompter shouting to Domingo. At any rate, I loved the performance.