Tan Dun | The First Emperor
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Tan Dun

EMI Classics 5099921512995 • www.emiclassics.com

This tremendous production offers much to enjoy. First off, there are no silly plot elements about aristocratic brothers and sisters cross-dressing and disguised as servants who fall in love with each other. The plot is simple and circles around the strong willed person who unified China and built the Wall at the cost of crushing the life out of his people and everyone close to him. His single desire in the portion of history shown in this opera is to get an anthem written that will glorify his deed. Placido Domingo convincingly plays the emperor whose deeds inspire terror as well as pity. In an ironic ending, the anthem turns out to be the death-longing song of the slaves who built the wall.

As spectacle, this production is awesome. It combines the values of Peking and Western operas. The set by Fan Yue, a staircase with more than 600 huge stone blocks hanging from ropes ingeniously lit to suggest either the great wall or the imperial palace fascinates with its originality. The 400 costumes designed by Oscar winning Emi Wada are magnificent. In fact, the visuals all push the imagination well beyond its limits. Chief among the other exotic pleasures are the singing and dancing of Wu Hsing-Kuo as the literally two-faced Yin-Yang Master, and Dou Dou Huang the principal male dancer. Safe to say you have never seen anything like it this side of a Peking Opera. Also, the close-ups of Qi Yao, the zheng player, fascinate with her dexterity and dramatic style.

The principals all sing beautifully and the chorus is monumental. If there is a reason for caution it is that the production, as filmed here runs 177 slow moving minutes The arias are sung in English. Even the simplest phrase or word can be elaborated musically for a long time, so if you don’t like that, you might get a wee bit impatient. That said, Tan Dun’s score which he directs himself, is challenging and worth taking some time with.

The New York critics gave the opera a musical thumbs down. The audience filmed at the Met on Dec. 21, 2006 was wild about it. Either way, there is nothing like it that I know of, so if you have a sense of adventure, and are patient, give it a spin.

by Stanley Fefferman November 2008

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Stanley Fefferman
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The Live Music Report
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Stanley Fefferman is a writer/photographer on the Toronto music scene and elsewhere. His work appears online at www.showtimemagazine.ca and here at The LMR.

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