The First Emperor

photo by: Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times
Let me be honest, it's hard to resist the temptation of watching The First Emperor when Placido Domingo is in it. As a newcomer to opera, he's one whose name I first heard years ago when he sang with Jose Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti. When I saw him for the first time last year conducting Romeo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera, I told myself I must see and hear him sing onstage.

Having been to a few classical operas, I also wondered what a "new" opera like The First Emperor would offer to the senses. Tan Dun, the genius behind the Oscar and Grammy winning score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is elevating some kind of obscure style of eastern music into the realms of western opera in this work, now being revived at the Met after its premiere in 2006.

As any opera lover knows, what drives the most is the music. Lots of it. In this case, The First Emperor delivers it very differently. Nowhere have I heard instruments being played that sounded alien - talk about employing ceramic instruments and zither and this huge Chinese gong off the stage - with a full orchestra. To someone used to the soaring melodies of an Italian opera, Tan Dun's music is something no one in the audience will probably be able to hum along with. Or remember.

Quite oddly, the story revolves around the emperor's quest for some music - an anthem to signify a unified China. It sounds simple really and one at which Tan Dun probably conveys his message of a marrying the East and West through music. Thankfully, Placido Domingo is in his element as the brutal Emperor Qin - and at 67 years old, it's amazing how this tenor is able to deliver a solid performance despite being accompanied by unconventional music.

What's certainly not unconventional as far as Met productions go are the set and costumes. Set designer Fan Yue filled the entire stage with this massive stairs and stone slabs lowered by ropes which at one point resembled the Great Wall of China. Emi Wada, the Oscar-winner costume designer for Akira Kurosawa's movie Ran, have us all brought back to the time of Qin Dynasty with flowing robes in a riot of colors and an assortment of headdresses. Really eye-catching.

The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera has two more performances left for the Met's 2007-2008 season (May 14 & May 17, 2008). Approximate running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes with one intermission.

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