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Is a Trip to the Met Still in Order?
by Mort Levine

No one disputes that long distance travel these days is a hassle. It isn't likely to change for the foreseeable future. The hassle argues against ranging far afield to catch the brand new or the rarely performed opera.

That question remains for us in the wake of the midwinter trip a few months back to New York to experience the premiere of The First Emperor by Chinese-American composer Tan Dun. A couple of days later, we enjoyed vivacious soprano Anna Netrebko in IPuritani, a rarely mounted Bellini bel canto masterpiece. There is always much that is rewarding to do in New York, and attending a clutch of six plays proved that point.

Within a few weeks after getting back home, we settled into our nearby AMC14 movie complex at Westgate to view the spectacular Julie-Taymor Magic Flute starring Nathan Gunn. Over the next couple of months, we were able to enjoy the movie screen size high definition video of both operas we had seen in New York.

This astonishing outreach effort launched by the Met's new general manager, Peter Gelb, is paralleled by television performances of the same operas on Channel 54. Thus, one might want to rethink the question posed by the headline above this column.

There is an electricity and a special ambiance in a sold-out premiere live performance. Settling in for the Tan Dun opera in NY had all that going for it. The first scene was filled with exotic on-stage percussion of rocks, drums and a mesmerizing singer, Wo-Hsing Quo, in the Peking Opera style, telling us the story of the first emperor of China, who built the Great Wall.

At that point the blending of east and west began. Plácido Domingo in the title role struggled with a kind of Neo-Puccini score which grew wearisome. Its pentatonic lyricism taxed the audience as much as it did the famed tenor with a kind of warmed-over Turandot. There were also stretches of stirring martial-arts movie music which won the composer an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The huge investment in the opera was part of a commitment the Met has made to launching new works. The previous premieres which graced the Met stage included Tobias Picker's American Tragedy, based on the Theodore Dreiser novel of the 20s and the John Harbison work from the same period The Great Gatsby, the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Like many new operas, launched with great fanfare, these seemed to have sunk out of sight pretty quickly. One hopes that the Tan Dun might find a longer life now that the Met is rolling out its works nationwide by way of contemporary technology.

Tan Dun not only composed the work but conducted it at the Met. His collaborators are all top flight: Ha Jin, a remarkable novelist, did the libretto (in English, by the way) and a famed movie director, Zhang Yimou directed this production. Emi Wada did the astonishing costumes and Fan Yue the marvelous sets.

Elizabeth Futral, who was a principal in the recent Streetcar Named Desire, sang the Princess, who falls in love with a composer, Jianli, whom the emperor has ordered to compose a new national anthem that will unify the country. The composer is opposed to the brutal effort to change China and writes an anthem that reveals the plight of the people. This brings an order for his execution unless he changes the song. The princess commits suicide and her lover, crazed at her death, bites off his tongue and spits it at the emperor. After being slain by the emperor, Jianli's anthem rings out with the song of the enslaved people to achieve his ultimate revenge.

The work is masterful in its intricacy and represents a major new departure for the somewhat hidebound opera world. It is well worth witnessing with an open ear for some unconventional sounds as well as insights into a historically sweeping and dramatic episode in Chinese history.

(SJOG Newsletter May, 2007)

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