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The First Emperor, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and given its much ballyhooed premiere on Thursday, is a bizarre mishmash, sometimes glorious and sometimes banal. Tan Dun, the expatriate Chinese composer, dares to think big – really big – even in quest of aesthetic sprawl.
He embraces eastern and western cultures as he dabbles in hand-me-down extravagances. At one point or another he explores ancient ceremony, percussive show-biz, rhythmic razzle-dazzle, wrong-note modernism, primitive romanticism, epic cliché and sentimental slush. His invokes everything – well, almost everything – from Peking Opera to Stravinsky, with nods to Mussorgsky, Puccini and Carl Orff en route. At least he manages to look backward with conviction.
The First Emperor concerns the plight of Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BCE), ruthless builder of the Great Wall, as he searches for an anthem to glorify the unification of China. The episodic libretto, created by Dun together with the novelist Ha Jin, favours rumination over momentum. Comprehension of the English text is challenged by perverse rhythmic accents and awkward melismatic indulgences. The costly production, staged by Zhang Yimou amid abstract designs by Fan Yue, stresses stylized movement patterns and symbolic tableaux. Emi Wada created the lush costumes.
The cast was dominated by none less than Plácido Domingo. Dun tailored the title role to the tenorissimo’s current strengths, avoiding high climaxes. Domingo’s quasi-Asian manner may have betrayed hints of verismo, but there was no denying his pathos, his power, and, yes, his ability simulate youthful bravado. Elizabeth Futral sounded exquisite in the florid flights of the Princess, and she found an sensitive romantic partner in the lyric tenor Paul Groves. Michelle DeYoung revelled in the mock-exotica of the Shaman. Wu Hsing-Kuo brought sly authority to the rites and chants of the Yin-Yang master.
Dun the conductor did his considerable best to sustain tension even where Dun the composer made that difficult. He also coaxed glorious responses from the chorus and integrated his instrumental ensembles, conventional and unconventional, cleverly. With a problematic piece like this, it is good to have someone in the pit who really knows the score.
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