Tan Dun mixes an East-West 'Emperor'

Times Staff Writer

Tan Dun has done it.

Well, not for all of "The First Emperor," not even for most of his important new opera, which had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night. But for a little while, this frustrating yet momentarily glorious affair -- which brings to the Met stage everybody's favorite tenor, Placido Domingo, along with a lot of people's favorite Chinese film director, Zhang Yimou, and novelist and poet Ha Jin -- is one big, wild and wonderful wow.

Whether those first 15 minutes of a 3 1/2 -hour evening are worth the price of admission (four C notes will buy you a top seat and a few sips of Champagne) probably depends upon your patience and pocketbook. But the entire run of 10 performances in the nearly 4,000-seat house impressively sold out before the premiere. And the new opera is coming to a cinema near you on Jan. 13, as part of the company's experimental policy (beginning Dec. 30 with "The Magic Flute") to broadcast productions on Saturdays at selected movie theaters nationwide.

The symbolism of "The First Emperor" couldn't be clearer. The Met, with Peter Gelb as its ambitious new head, is taking on an aggressively updated image. Long a lumbering dinosaur, the elitist company got seriously interested in dipping its arthritic toes in the 20th century's operatic waters only during the last couple of decades. But already it is gleefully jumping and splashing its way into the music, the stagecraft and the advertising of the 21st.

Here's how Tan's opera begins: Behind a chic curtain decorated with Chinese characters and brush strokes comes the sound of drum and stones. In the pit, timpani tremble and water phones (liquid-filled bowed steel bowls) whir. A yin-yang master, played by a Peking Opera singer (the mesmerizing Wu-Hsing-Kuo) introduces the story of Qin Shi Huangdi.

The father of China, Qin unified China's seven kingdoms nearly 2,300 years ago. He began the Great Wall, standardized the language, initiated vast public works projects and ruled with brutal autocracy. Today, tourists gawk at the giant terracotta warriors that guard his tomb.

Tan, who lives in New York, is a well-known master of mixing his native traditional Chinese music with that of Western avant-garde and a more traditional Western neo-Romantic approach. This is a unique three-way stylistic stretch that can, at its best, be tremendously alluring.

That is exactly what happens when the curtain rises to reveal 13 large Chinese drums and two rows of ceramic bowls, all beaten and tinkled while the orchestral strings warm up to lush Messiaen-like chords. A Chinese zither, the zheng (masterfully played by Qi Yao), revs up. One drummer turns out to be an extraordinary acrobatic dancer (Dou Dou Huang). A shaman (the magnificent mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung) calls forth spirits of awesome power.

The chorus, tiered like terracotta warriors to the top of the tall Met stage and lavishly robed, echo the call, slapping their sides in tense rhythms and carrying out striking synchronized arm movements.

Chinese and Western opera merge as shaman and yin-yang master sing together. Chorus and orchestra gradually assemble a memorable Chinese folk-like melody.

Finally, delightfully out of nowhere, the climax is musically spectacular, a "Turandot" moment, out Puccini-ing Puccini.

Unfortunately, with the arrival of Domingo, as Qin, and the telling of the tale proper, "The First Emperor" lapses into the prosaic. Tan and Jin (who wrote the libretto together) based the opera on a corny 1996 Chinese epic film, "The Emperor's Shadow," which they made into an even cornier opera.

Qin thinks he cannot be a true emperor unless he has the right soundtrack. He hunts down a great zheng master and composer, Gao Jianli, with whom he had grown up, to compose a glorious anthem for the emperor. In the most typical old-fashioned opera scenario imaginable (Verdi would have recognized it readily), Jianli, who is horrified by the monster the emperor has become, is seduced by Qin's daughter, Princess Yueyang, who is promised to Qin's general.

The story ends very badly. Yueyang commits suicide rather than marry the general, not knowing that Jianli had already poisoned him. Jianli, in his grief and his anger at having once called Qin "brother," gruesomely bites off his tongue. Qin assumes the throne to the anticlimactic new anthem, which is Jianli's last trick -- a slave chorus.

There are passages in this opera of rare beauty. Tan is most adept in ensembles, and the cast is devoted. With the suavely lyric Paul Groves as Jianli and Domingo at his most heroic, the duos between composer and emperor provide their own tenorial yin-yang. The seduction between Jianli and Yueyang (Elizabeth Futral) is quiet and eerily mysterious.

But Tan's attempts to give Chinese twists to Italianate vocal lines is rarely graceful. Domingo gets an A+ for effort. Tan usually keeps the tessitura with the tenor's comfortable lower range, and Domingo belts it out with the force of a singer half his age.

But the text is often surprisingly trivial, and the strange musical accents throw his delivery off, making his Spanish accent much more pronounced than normal. Even Western opera singers from China -- Haijing Fu (Chief Minister) and Hao Jiang Tian (General Wang) -- sounded uncomfortable with the text settings.

Zhang's staging, and Fan Yue's set -- steep steps and stone slabs suspended on chords -- so impressive at first appearance -- lose their appeal quickly. Zhang, whose films -- "Curse of the Golden Flower" opened this week -- are increasingly over-the-top spectacles, is amazing with the chorus but seems to have lost his touch for more intimacy. Emi Wada's costumes do not stint, with bolts of fabulous fabric making the chorus look dazzling.

Tan conducts, another rarity at the Met, where the last composer to conduct his opera with the company was Italo Montemezzi in 1941. The sounds he gets from the orchestra are a wonder and a major highlight throughout. But the sounds alone can't breathe life into the opera.

Los Angeles Opera is a co-commissioner of the production. Physically the production is far too big for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, so rethinking is necessary. There is plenty of time (the L.A. premiere won't be for at least two years) if the company wants to consider rethinking more than just the set.

Although Tan received his commission from the Met in 1996 and the opera was much workshopped, it evidently couldn't escape the enormous weight of the company's traditions and expectations. It's not quite the new Met yet.


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