Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Sexual Healing

December 29, 2006

 
Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang and Paul Groves as Gao Jianli
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
I’ve just come back from seeing the third performance of Tan Dun’s new opera The First Emperor and thought I’d add my two bits to the many other blogs and mainstream press outlets that have touched on this world premiere run at the Met. I feel on some level I have to defend it. It certainly isn’t great and no doubt it needs some significant retooling to really stand out, but it’s hardly as bad as the histrionics of some bloggers who have posted on the subject might suggest. (FYI – there were few walkouts and no booing to my ears tonight.) The libretto is weak in many spots. The opera is overly long and quite dull in the very places it should be the most interesting. The vocal lines are oddly stressed. All of this has been well established by now elsewhere - particularly in excellent and well balanced reviews from Mark Swed and Philip Kennicott.

I think a balance is important in this case, because there are several significant and wonderful things in this work. The music, particularly the widespread use of percussion and other traditional Chinese instrumentation, is quite good. The performances of the entire cast were strong and truly Domingo deserves accolades not just for advocating for this project but clearly giving it his all. Much of the choral writing was superb and the opening sequences of both acts worked quite well. But most importantly, I loved the sheer ambition of the piece. Compared to last year’s milquetoast An American Tragedy from Tobias Picker, this looked like Le Grand Macabre.

Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2006
Tan Dun took the bull by the horns on this one. Some critics have accused him of pandering over the years – writing music with just enough Chinese influences to seem exotic to the mainly Western consumers of his work – whether they are part of a larger Chinese diaspora or not. But from where I sat tonight, I felt he had clearly favored these elements over those more familiar to a predominantly Western audience (e.g. non-traditional vocal lines). A bold choice that may not have always paid off in ways the audience here might appreciate. For instance, virtually everything I’ve read talks about the influence of Puccini in the work. Yes there certainly is some. But virtually no one talks about significant references to any specific composers or works of the Chinese Opera. Is it that simply no one here is familiar enough with this repertoire to comment or are the references not there? My point is that perhaps Tan Dun has intended things that aren’t easily perceived in this context, and while not everything here works, maybe the project is larger than making a work palatable for the Western ears of the Met’s audience.

I think we haven't heard the last from The First Emperor. Not just because it is a co-production with LA Opera, but because Tan Dun has shown a proclivity to effectively revise his works as he did earlier with his "Paper" Concerto.

But here is a bigger question. What other diseases or disabilities would having sex with Paul Groves cure?

Comments:

I agree with the critique, except, I have NO idea what is meant by your last line? If you intend for anyone to take your work seriously, then be more clear with your comments. I consider that last line offensive and un-needed!
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