Cultural historians tracking the hugely successful career of Tan Dun since he left China and moved to New York City in 1986 will recognize the practical entrepreneur behind The First Emperor. While writing his commission, Tan says, he spent nine years virtually living at the Metropolitan Opera, studying its habits, preferences, and products, to create an opera tailored to please Met patrons: an epic spectacle by an eclectic composer who happily admits to “swinging and swimming freely among different cultures.”
He has succeeded in at least one sense—all the performances were sold out even before the work opened. That’s not entirely surprising: Tan’s reputation has a broader reach than those of most composers recently commissioned by the Met. In addition to his other widely performed stage works—Marco Polo, The Peony Pavilion, Water Passion After Saint Matthew, and Tea: A Mirror of the Soul—Tan won an Oscar for his film score to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and in 1998 he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, a veritable certification of genius. Beyond that, Tan’s collaborator on The First Emperor’s libretto is Ha Jin, a Chinese novelist who writes in English and is a survivor of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and now a U.S. citizen. To set the seal on what must have seemed like a recipe for sure success, the opera has been directed by the filmmaker Zhang Yimou, best known for House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern, while the eternal Plácido Domingo was engaged to sing the title role.
With all this heavy background, it’s a bit hard to understand why the opera has turned out to be such a cup of weak tea. The subject matter could scarcely seem like more promising operatic material. The brutal Emperor Qin unified China in 221 B.C., slaughtered his enemies, ruled the land by terror, built the Great Wall, and famously created a vast army of terra-cotta soldiers to stand eternal guard at his elaborately constructed tomb—compared to this fabled tyrant, Mao seems almost beneficent. There is surely a potentially colorful and conflicted operatic character here, fictionalized or not. Unfortunately, Tan and Ha Jin have reduced the emperor to little more than an ineffectual nonentity. As depicted in the opera, Qin’s two main power trips, both thwarted, involve forcing his childhood friend, a composer named Gao Jianli, to write a stirring Chinese national anthem and arranging for his crippled daughter to marry a favorite general. All goes wrong when daughter Yueyang commits suicide after she falls in love with Gao Jianli, who then foils the emperor by presenting him with a wimpy national anthem condemning war and oppression.
Perhaps something impressive could still have been made out of this limp scenario had Tan taken the stylized approach that characterizes his other stage works. Instead, the bland, straightforward narrative progress of the piece fatally exposes its lack of drama. Then, too, Tan has begun to soften his music, further romanticizing a multicultural language that once had more bite to it. He still freely mixes Eastern and Western techniques, and often the exotic textures can be quite striking, as when he blends a tangy zheng (a Chinese variant of the zither) with a plucked harp and pizzicato strings. On the other hand, some of his now trademarked special effects—stones dropped on a taut timpani surface, tuned water bowls played by hand, etc.—are becoming overused and predictable. Worse, the lyrical set pieces in The First Emperor are couched in a sickly sweet Americana idiom that sounds rather like watered-down Copland or Bernstein with a dash of Hollywood banality. Parts of Act Two, in fact, become so operetta-ish that I half-fancied Domingo might break into a song from Lehar’s Land of Smiles.
What does work, then? The presentation. Wisely avoiding a tacky chinoiserie spectacle à la Zeffirelli, designer Fan Yue ordered an imposing set dominated by a gigantic stage-filling raked staircase and dozens of massive stone slabs lowered on ropes. These basic elements are continually rearranged to conjure up poetic suggestions of the Great Wall as well as the cruel nature of Emperor Qin’s rule, a stage setting that often creates considerably more dramatic power than the opera itself. For those who demand eye-catching color, there’s no lack of that in Emi Wada’s gorgeous costumes, which in their very cut and variety of tint seem to be commentaries on the characters who wear them.
It is hardly the cast’s fault if they fail to make these pallid creatures come to life. No one tries harder than Domingo, but he is finally defeated by a role that lacks clear definition, dramatic tension, or even any interesting music to sing. Tan has been clever enough to keep the veteran tenor near his still sturdy middle range, and it was also shrewd to contrast Domingo’s now distinctly lower-pitched voice with the lighter lyrical tenor of Paul Groves, who deftly handles Gao Jianli’s vocal tasks. Elizabeth Futral graces Yueyang’s florid flights with her unblemished soprano and winning musical manner, while Susanne Mentzer (Yueyang’s Mother), Michelle DeYoung (Shaman), Wu Hsing-Kuo (Yin-Yang Master), Hao Jiang Tian (General Wang), and Haijing Fu (Chief Minister) do what is required of them, no more, no less. Since the composer commands all from the podium, we are presumably hearing and seeing The First Emperor exactly the way he wants it.