Tuesday, January 16, 2007


That one syllable about sums up my initial reaction to Tan Dun's The First Emperor, but, really, I do need to provide an expanded review, so you'll understand how I reached that conclusion. In the end, I think it's possible that the piece can be salvaged, but it will take an awful lot of hard work.

First, the good.

The broadcast medium, high-definition TV, works very, very well. The picture is big, bright, clear. Brian Large's direction was good, much better than I'd expected based on Met telecasts he's done. I'd like more distance shots than he uses, because sometimes it's important to see both the singer and on-stage reactions to what is being sung. I sometimes felt I was missing a reaction that would be interesting or relevant to the plot.

On the other hand, imaginative camera placement allowed some angles you'd never see in the opera house. One camera must have been in the prompter's box (or equivalent). There were occasional shots showing part of the house and part of the stage.

The broadcast also sounded good, less compressed than the radio broadcasts and with no sense that the microphones were too close. It's also true that the sound was more like a recording than like a live opera performance. You could sometimes hear the voices and orchestra resounding through the hall, but the blend and balances were nothing like what you'd hear if you were sitting in the theater.

I liked the intermission features, which were film-and-TV appropriate, not glosses on the radio features. Not that it wouldn't have been amusing to stick a camera in List Hall and watch the quiz contestants embarrass themselves, and, really, Sills should have shut up about getting Domingo alone in his dressing room and locking his wife out. Hasn't she heard the rumors about him?? I wondered, briefly, if the interview were really live, but the David Beckham reference scotched that thought. The little documentary on the making of The First Emperor was also entertaining; I love rehearsals and technical details, and it was definitely fun to see the singers going a bit nuts trying to wrap their vocal cords around the music.

The cast was super; I have nothing bad to say about any of them. They all sang and acted well. Elizabeth Futral made the Princess's music sound..... uh...nothing could make that music sound easy, but she sang it about as naturally as it could be sung. Paul Groves sounded vocally strained the last couple of times I heard him in S.F.; not here, where he sounded great. Poor Suzanne Mentzer had almost nothing to do, and was fine in what she had. (I have plenty to say about the reasons that perhaps she was given so little to do.)

I loved Michelle DeYoung's Shaman and Wu Hsing-Kuo's marvelous Ying-Yang Master, though I found the two characters a bit cryptic. Both functioned more as choruses or commentators than as participants in the plot - but they also got some of the best music in the piece, because....well, see below.

Hao Jiang Tian is a much better singer than I had thought based on radio broadcasts. Domingo sang well and had clearly worked hard to learn the music (the broadcast was sensitive enough that the prompter was audible a couple of times feeding him lines - so maybe he could have worked a little harder). I wish his diction had been better, but then, if you hand a Spanish tenor a barely-singable English text by two native speakers of Chinese, perhaps the results won't be ideal.

The piece certainly looks great, in a spare-no-expense way. Gorgeous costumes, interesting sets, imaginative staging, the placement of some of the musicians on the stage (and their involvement in the plot) - all excellent. As usual, the Met orchestra played like fiends, and it was fun to see them acting as the chorus in one interlude. It was obvious both from shots of the pit and from how well the parts held together that Tan Dun is a terrific conductor.

Now, about the music, a severely mixed bag.

Every reviewer has commented on the split personality of The First Emperor. Some of the music is brilliant and arresting, and that would be all of the music that sounds distinctly Chinese. The opening scene is a stunner, hieratic and incantatory, the Ying-Yang Master dancing about the stage and the Shaman declaiming. It all changes about ten measures or so before Domingo's first entrance; with a score in front of me, I could show you the exact phrase.

And that's when things deteriorate. What follows is fake Italian opera. No, really, worse than that: it sounds like bad imitation Andrew Lloyd-Webber. So bad that I laughed out loud a couple of times. SO BAD, so sickly-sweet, so smarmy.

Tan Dun occasionally quotes from or refers to other operas. A friend reports having heard both Madama Butterfly and, weirdly enough, Peter Grimes. I was shocked to hear a near-direct quotation from Turandot in the last big crowd scene. It wasn't the first time I expected Birgit Nilsson to appear in garish makeup and a four-foot-high headdress, but, as we all know, Puccini did it better. I don't know what Tan Dun was thinking, wandering so far from his obvious strengths into such serious lapses of taste.

I heard some weaknesses even in those sections written from strength, mainly in the pacing. Some of the problems stem from weaknesses in the libretto, but there are also sections - including that opening scene - when the music simply goes on for too long, and it feels like the opera grinds to a halt. My internal alarm clock went BOING! two minutes from the end of the opening; in the second act, the opera sounds as if it ends twice in the ten minutes before the music finally stops.

I suspect those problems can be fixed pretty easily. But I don't know what exactly can be done about the libretto short of a total rewrite. The novelist Ha Jin and the composer himself concocted the libretto together. Both are native speakers of Chinese; neither has written a libretto, a stage play, or poetry. Whether they would be capable of writing a convincing dramatic work in a Chinese style, I don't know, but what they've come up with is an unsingable hybrid. It's neither fish nor fowl, torn structurally and musically between Chinese and Italian styles. The text is simply a horror. It's not poetic; it's difficult to sing; the English is poorly set.

I imagine they were in a difficult position, given that the customer was the Metropolitan Opera: maybe they wanted to write something in a style that would be recognizable by an audience steeped in Western opera. But the Met audience has welcomed quite a few operas in the last twenty years in various modern musical and performance styles; it's not quite as conservative as it's usually portrayed to be.

I wish the issues in the libretto were limited to the difficulties of singing it. But the pacing is poor and the characters' behavior is, to say the least, opaque and unmotivated.

The plotting is terrible, and I don't mean in that convoluted way that, say Il Trovatore is badly plotted. In Trovatore, at least the characters' emotional motivations and personalities are discernable. In The First Emperor, no such luck. Among other things, we're asked to believe that the Princess is a pure and innocent virgin when she's given music and texts that belong with a knowing woman of the world - say, the Marschallin in "Rosenkavalier." The best explanation we get of why the Emperor wants a new Chinese anthem is "Loud music makes us weak." What?? This is especially hard to swallow in an opera where the Western-style music is pap and the Chinese-style music fresh and imaginative. But all sorts of horrible things happen because of his desire for a new anthem - and the anthem he gets, in the end, is musical CRAP.

Then there's the treatment of the female characters. We have the mother of the Princess, who gets hardly any music, and who seems weirdly uninvolved with her young daughter's life and fate. We have the Princess, who is allowed to work her wiles on Jianli to persuade him to write the new anthem, but who after exercising them to the fullest - and regaining the power to walk! why did nobody tell me that sex could heal the crippled?? - is punished for her success, because good girls who are engaged to powerful generals don't have sex with other men! We have the Shaman, who apparently doesn't have very strong powers, since she doesn't provide an accurate description in the last scene of what happened to the Princess and the General. Did the librettists think they had to do that with the Shaman to justify the appearance of the ghosts of the Princess and General??

To its credit, the Met put an enormous amount of time and money into The First Emperor. I wish someone had eyeballed the libretto during its formative period and told the authors the truth about it, considering that it took one hearing for me (and every other reviewer) to spot the problems with it. But who would have done that? The commission was issued during the Volpe years, when the Met wasn't exactly getting what I'd call consistent artistic direction. I'm willing to bet that Peter Gelb will exercise a little more control over future commissions.

Can this opera be saved? Well, maybe. Justin Davidson reports about the opera and has some interesting ideas about how it got where it is and how to fix it.

If I were in charge of that project, here's what I'd do:
  • Get Mark Adamo or someone of equal theatrical flair and musical experience to rewrite the libretto. (Read the synopsis here to get a sense of the issues.)

  • Throw out all the fake Puccini and replace it with new music in the Chinese style.

  • Do something about the female characters.

  • Do something about the overall plot. (See bullet point 1 above.)

Minor postscript: How I wish I'd called this posting "Ha-shi-WOOF" after the Shaman's chanting in the ghost scene. And by the way, does anyone know what "Ha-shi-woo" means? If anything?


Anonymous said...

In re the camera near the promter's box... it was acutally a neat little remote-control contraption that looked a bit like a footlight. It was attached to a rail mounted near the stage-edge of the orchestra pit, and it zipped back and forth to wherever the action was. It could also turn and pivot. I imagine the shots from it must have been pretty dramatic, given its strong upward angle from the floor.

In person, it was a little annoying at first, but I tuned it out pretty quickly. It was also a welcome diversion during some exceptionally long moments, like when they were sorting the homicides from the suicides.

My guess is that the nifty remote camera was purchased in America... you know, the land with the standardized currency.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, that is very, very cool, thank you. I wonder if the remote camera was also responsible for the pit shots of the orchestra and Tan Dun.

Anonymous said...

Could be, but they also had a human-operated camera on a tripod (or whatver they call it for professional cameras), located downstage right. That could have done some side shots of the orchestra and conductor?

Will said...

I was in the house for FIRST EMPEROR on the 9th and left very happy, no matter its problems which are very real.

Did the big screen/big sound system format pick up the visceral vibration of the big bronze bell? The radio made it sound dull and somewhat annoying while in the big space it was thrilling.

The libretto is a mess in many ways and also banal at some important confrontations. The whole father/daughter conflict in act 2 was deadly and trivially written, kind of like Gidget Goes Chinese.

The princess is potentially the most interesting figure in the opera and I read the seduction/restoration of ability to walk episode as highly symbolic, rather like the potion in TRISTAN. She's been the immobilized pawn of her father who can mate her with whomever he deems an advantageous match. But she sees the composer in revolt against Qin and takes matters into her own hands by seducing him. Now an unsuitable match for the General, has her life in her own hands and is free to do whatever she wants. Walking--mobility, independence--is the natural outcome but the libretto was prosaic here--realistic and clumsy where some great transformation should have occurred.

Still it was far more interesting and even compelling compared to a lot of old operas that routinely get trotted out by rote, or some of the new ones by composers who don't know how to write a scene that crackles in the theater. Tan's big ritual scenes crackled with heat to spare.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The bell made an impressive sound but did not approach what you describe.

Those are excellent points about the weaknesses and potential of the libretto. I agree that the ritual scenes - which got the best music - were good.

Anonymous said...

"Then there's the treatment of the female characters..... Because good girls who are engaged to powerful generals don't have sex with other men! "

What you wrote above was very scary and like a life-loser's crying!!! (how can you say this is not possible to happen to a girl in an emperor's family?) I am wondering whether you are a very reasonable woman, or just like a bitch who was crying for something which would be never possible for her to get (in your deep mind there is something bad or wrong and I don't know what happened to you in your life up to now. But it is hurting you really, at your home, you want and could be the emperor, no oneelse! But outside, no way!!!).

Lisa Hirsch said...

Gosh, I wonder why that was posted anonymously? I'm going to leave it up - it speaks for itself and I don't want to delete it.

A couple of things you should know:

- I have a great life that I'm very happy with.

- What I wrote was sarcastic. Please re-read the whole posting and look at the section you quote in context and with sarcasm in mind. There's a major trope in much of world literature where a young woman has sex outside of socially acceptable channels and is punished for it. That is what I was referring to, because The First Emperor can be interpreted as another instance of it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your great additional comments to all those floating around the music world.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You're welcome!

Chalkenteros said...

I enjoyed reading your review, even if I disagree with some of it -- one person's "fake Italian opera" is another's lyric beauty. You can read my own thoughts on my blog: chalkenteros.blogspot.com.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks for the comments! I see we disliked a lot of the same things. ;-)