Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Greenjeans Review: "The First Emperor" at Met Opera

Every year, Jae and I take ourselves out for a night on the town as our Christmas present to each other. This year we went to the Metropolitan Opera to see The First Emperor, a brand new opera by Tan Dun (composer of the score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,") commissioned by the Met. The legendary Placido Domingo sang the title role, which was written for him.

Although visually satisfying and a worthwhile experience overall, musically the opera didn't set my heart afire or send me off humming a new favorite tune. It did, however, deliver a new experience of Chinese and Western music folded into one another, of plays with atonality and chromatic scales, of lots of rousing drums and harps and haunting "waterbowls" played with bows. It all sounded very... contemporary. During the intermission, I remarked to Jae that I found it hard to get a foothold on the sound, but that I thought I liked it. I didn't run out to buy the CD or anything, but I appreciated the experience.

I had never been to the opera in NYC before, and only once otherwise ("La Boheme" at the Kennedy Center more than 10 years ago). We were impressed by the crowd and the general civility of the whole affair. People were decadently dressed in furs and jewels -- the works. As utterly gauche as I know it is, I was glad to have worn the vintage Persian lamb coat with the fox fur collar given to me a few years back. It was perfectly appropriate. (The vast majority of the audience was white and over 50. There were also a whole lot of young Asians.)

For all the civility, I was surprised at the end, however, by how quickly the audience rushed out the door, even as the performers were still taking their curtain call. It seems unbelievably rude to me that people would leave a live performance before the performers themselves have left the stage. They have exposed their souls to us, and what do they get in return? To bow to our backsides? Outrageous.

But back to the production. Lots of good craftsmanship here! The costumes were truly spectacular, with copious quantities of flowing silk in superbright rainbow colors. The set design was elegant, involving dark, minimalist stairs reaching from center stage to nearly all the way up and back. Rectangular "stones" suspended from cables could be raised and lowered all together or in sections to suggest the Great Wall at different angles and different stages of completion. When multiple performers occupied the stage, they would be arranged around the stairs creating great visual compositions within the frame of the proscenium.

It was amazing to see performers from the Peking Opera perform. I could have watched them all night long. And as one might expect, it's worth half the ticket price just to get to roam about the opera house itself. It's like walking around inside a very luxe, red velvet-lined jewelery box decorated with huge Chagall paintings!

The real treat, though, was to hear Domingo sing live.
It's so cool that, at age 66, this lion of opera is still experimenting, still challenging himself, and as artistic director of the Met, supporting new music. Toward the end of Act II, after his character has learned of the various betrayals, suicides, and murders requisite to any good epic story, Domingo staggers and sways across the stage dressed in sumptuous gold silk robes belting a heart-wrenching atonal aria. I just sat grinning at the chance to see him doing his thing in such grand style.

I can't say I recommend The First Emperor unless you're an opera buff and need to see the latest thing. (You can find some more learned reviews here and here if you'd like to know more.) But I do recommend the Met for sure. And here's a hot tip (that we learned too late, alas): if you get there by 4pm the day of the show, you can get in line for $20 orchestra seat rush tickets! (They go on sale at 6, but you have to be in line by 4 to get a chance at the 200 tickets reserved for the rush.)

In any case, it was a fabulous way to kick off the New Year!

Photos sourced here.

No comments: