Tan Dun and Zhang Yimou speak about The First Emperor
See also this portfolio of Ken Howard's beautiful photographs of the production
Since I did not make it up to New York to see Tan Dun's new opera, The First Emperor, I was at the simulcast on January 13. Critics have largely judged the opera a failure, but the Met has sold out all performances. Audiences seem to be pleased, although the applause at the matinee was polite but restrained. Now that I have heard and seen it for myself, I think that the nay voices have it right.
The story should be epic, since the title character is Qin Shihuang, the warlord who created the first Chinese imperial dynasty and from whose name we get the country's name, China. The libretto (by the composer and novelist Ha Jin), however, focuses on Qin's obsession with a piece of music he wants composed. The story has been adapted from a movie called The Emperor's Shadow (1996), directed by Zhou Xiaowen on a screenplay by Lu Wei. It is not derived from historical sources but is a sort of historical fiction. The results make the story a little silly, which registered in the audience's laughter every time Qin mentioned his imperial anthem.
The score has some weak points, unfortunately enough of them to outweigh the exciting sounds Tan Dun brings together. As Lisa Hirsch noted in her extensive and perceptive comments on the opera, the major mistake was in the many sections that sounded grossly derivative of Puccini. At one point, I actually thought the orchestra might break into a rousing finale of "Nessun dorma." Several scenes drag on far too long, long after the listener gets the idea. If the creative team has the chance to revisit the opera, with the serious intention of revising it, before the production in Los Angeles, it could be possible to save The First Emperor.
Brian of Out West Arts noted this weekend the two main advantages of seeing the simulcast. First, the choice of shots is excellent, with views of the sets and backstage area close up, including watching the singers coming off the stage or preparing for curtain calls. Theater viewers do not have the effect of hearing the sound in that cavernous house (although we could clearly hear the backstage prompter feeding forgotten lines to Domingo -- I counted three), but we have closeups of the singers, conductor (Tan Dun is an expressive man), and even members of the orchestra (watching them shout the words in the score, sometimes confusing which word to shout, was a stitch). Second, the intermission features are excellent, especially when the host is Beverly Sills. As I said in a post about the recent PBS documentary on Sills, Bubbles has always been a very funny lady.
Remaining Met simulcasts this season include Eugene Onegin (February 24), The Barber of Seville (March 24), and Il Trittico (April 28). All simulcasts begin at 1:30 pm (NB: time is Eastern time zone). Due to popular demand, there will be a rebroadcast of The Magic Flute this evening (January 23, 7:30 pm). Because that will be from the recorded feed, it will take place at that time in all American time zones.
As if in answer to my prayer, reader Garth Trinkl informs us (in the comments) that PBS will be broadcasting the Julie Taymor Magic Flute (in English). In Washington, you can watch it on WETA TV (Channel 26) on Wednesday night (January 24, 9 pm), with a repeat if your DVR goes awry early Sunday morning (January 28, 3 am). Bravo, PBS!