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The Not-So-Miraculous Mandarin

New York
Metropolitan Opera
05/10/2008 -  and 05/14, 05/17 (Matinee)
Tan Dun: The First Emperor
Placido Domingo (Emperor Qin), Sarah Coburn (Princess Yue Yang), Ning Liang (Shaman), Susanne Mentzer (Mother of Yueyang), Paul Groves (Gao Jianli), Haijing Fu (Chief Minister), Hao Jiang Tian (General Wang) Wu Hsing-Kuo (Yin-Yang Master) Danrell Williams (Guard), Dou Dou Huang (Principal Male Dancer)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald J. Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Tan Dun (Conductor)
Zhang Yimou (Production), Fau Yue (Set Designer), Emi Wada (Costumer Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Wang Chaoge (Co-Director), Dou Dou Huang (Choreagrapher), Peter McClintock (Stage Director)

What an opulent, gorgeous, inventive, crazy, eye-filling set for Tan Dun’s opera, The First Emperor!! What glittering, glistening costumes sparkling with translucent gimcracks, tints and hues. What a clever way to combine Oriental and Western instruments, not with some cheap chinoiserie, but with spell-binding bells, drums and magnificent textures.

And what a boring hodgepodge of Meyerbeer melodrama, George Crumb sound-effects, historical hogwash, and operatic tricks encompassing Menotti, Mussorgsky, and of course Puccini.

Puccini was inevitable, since the Italian composer studied as much Chinese music as was possible a century ago for Turandot. . But rarely did he simply utilize empty-fifth harmonies or endless melismas. Instead he was challenged into transforming the “exotic” techniques into high emotion. Tan Dun, though, seems to have taken Chinese opera techniques to graft them into Italian realism. And not all the thrilling set designs in the world can overcome the fact that this is neither Western nor Eastern opera.

Typical is an aria (one of the few) sung by a crippled princess in Act I. The melody soars, gets down deep, is heartfelt and sung beautifully to falling snow in the dark, by Sarah Coburn. It ends with a pizzicato point and a silence—the perfect silence for applause. But not a single handclap from the full opening-night audience. The music simply isn’t gripping: it has the structure of an aria, but not the inspiration.

Having lived on the verge of China for many years, I can venture a guess at the failure here. Real Peking and Cantonese opera is gorgeous, has massive symbolic gestures, can be explained in philosophical and historical terms, and takes years to perfect. What is missing, though, is anything even approaching emotional communication.

So when we have Placido Domingo looking stentorian indeed as the cruel Chinese Emperor, when we have Sarah Coburn, a wonderful soprano, and the excellent Paul Graves as the composer Gao Jianli, they can look as marvelous as possible. But one can’t judge their singing, because the singing doesn’t go anywhere.

And what of Tan Dun the composer? (He conducted the orchestra, and knew just what he wanted, so no question there.) When he started, his sensitivity, delicacy and fascinating ways with instruments was delightful. In his opera Marco Polo, he took an abstruse libretto and managed to encompass all kinds of instruments for a tour de force, if not great music.

But today, Tan Dun is a “name”. His piano concerto was written for another “name”, Lang Lang, but it was light entertainment. This opera doesn’t even reach that far—though looking at it is pure pleasure.

The story reflects both Benvenuto Cellini and Palestrina in looking for the “perfect work of art” that will be the climax of the opera, in this case an anthem to unify the Chinese people. To do this, the Emperor has a great composer kidnapped by destroying his village, then the composer starves himself until seduced by the Emperor’s cripplied daughter. (She in turn walks upon completing copulation, a prurient version of Amahl.) The anthem is written after most people die, but it turns out to be a song of the slaves building the Great Wall.

(That, too, is hardly original. In a Stalinist movie called Life of Composer Glinka, the composer is without inspiration until he hears the peasant singing, and from this he makes his music.)

Working that all into two acts was quite an achievement for librettists Ha Jin and Tan Dun himself. Fan Yue’s sets were more than challenges: they were enormously successful. Row upon row of stage-filling raked staircases, or stones descending on ropes for the Great Wall all serve extravagantly well. The costumes are equally luscious, thanks to Emi Wada.

But the reality is that the very best moments come with Wu Hsiing-Kuo as the Shaman Master. He appears first on stage and sings pure Peking Opera, while dancing, shaking, showing both sides of his yin-yang costume. Yet perhaps it was not “pure”. It was too good, it was too real, it was Tan Dun stylizing a music which he knows so well. As in his music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and like the film itself, it took an established genre, transforming it into an art form of true perfection. Tan Dun knows his music (his Act I intermezzo for bells is luscious), but the opera is as derivative as the music is empty.

Harry Rolnick



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