If at First you don’t succeed
I suppose the idea behind The First Emperor was that, if you gathered talents on the order of Tan Dun (composer), Zhang Yimou (director) and Emi Wada (costume designer), and set all the assets of the Metropolitan Opera at their feet, they could not help but produce something legendary. (Actually, I suspect the real idea was to pull entirely new audiences into an institution otherwise demographically doomed, those audiences presumably being urged along as well by the ostensible marquee value of a Plácido Domingo.)
On paper, it all hangs together. But for Domingo, this was, after all, the same team responsible for the irresponsibly glorious Hero, one of my very favorite films and an experience of both poignancy and truly epic sweep. So you better believe we were looking forward to The First Emperor, as a year-end treat for ourselves and as welcome-to-NYC present for Nurri’s brother and his wife, whose first visit to the States this is.
The feeling of anticipation carried me through the middle of the first act, at which point I started to wonder when things were going to get good. At first, I was tempted to believe that my failure to really engage with any of what was happening on stage was a structural problem with opera in English, with the emotionally descriptive bandwidth of the language as sung. But then I thought (rather embarrassingly, in this context) of Evita, of West Side Story, even of Gilbert & Sullivan, and how each transcended whatever limits exist on the power of sung English to organize emotional response, and I realized that the real issue was that Ha Jin‘s libretto simply sucked.
And then the whole enterprise kind of came undone – I stopped resisting the perception that what I was witnessing was actually bad, if not just short of kitsch. (The precise moment I started checking my watch was about ten minutes into Act II.)
This is a shame on so many levels, though I do want to give credit where it’s due: Fan Yue’s set design and staging was consistently satisfying, and at times ravishingly beautiful. Apart from that, though, Tan’s score – surprisingly, shockingly – never once caught fire, I never cared for a second about any of the characters, and even Wada’s costume designs seemed obligatory and phoned-in. I’m not competent to judge any of the singing, but not a note or trill stood out as obviously impressive, and ten minutes after it had ended I couldn’t remember a single passage. (For context, and what that implies about expectations, you should know that I listen to Tan’s scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and (especially) Hero often, and never find them anything but stirring, and I’ve always regarded Wada’s costuming choices as nonpareil.)
It may be that I’m not moved in the slightest by Plácido Domingo; it simply be that the formal constraints of opera worked against Tan. For whatever reason, though, The First Emperor has to rank as one of my greatest cultural disappointments in recent memory. It’s a shame, too, because at $70 in the nosebleed seats, the Met really had this one opportunity to convert me – to offer me something moving and memorable enough to make me want to return for more. If this painfully slow and unsatisfying effort is anything to go by, at least, I won’t be going back anytime soon.