In an opera house that typically hosts Western art music, it is refreshing to see the work of a contemporary Chinese composer performed on the stage. The Met’s 2006 premiere production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor is jaw-droppingly beautiful in both visuals and sounds. The opera tells the story of Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China, who unified the country and began building the Great Wall, employing ruthless brutality while doing so. The drama centers around the Emperor’s daughter, Yueyang, and musician Gao Jianli, who has been commissioned to compose an anthem for the new empire.

These three roles are sung expertly by Plácido Domingo, Elizabeth Futral and Paul Groves. Their thoughts and conversations are expressed through intimidating range and searing emotional depth. Mr Domingo’s eyes and phrases brim with moving, musical complexity. The harmonies bellowed out by the vocalists of the slaves’ chorus are as magnificent as the Great Wall they are building. Wu Hsing-Kuo, who as the Yin-Yang Master introduces the opera in traditional Chinese vocals, bounds through his storytelling with vivacity. The enchantment and tragedy of the age-old account, with lyrics by Ha Jin and Mr Dun, are in good hands with these performers.

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The singers are matched by an intricate and truly captivating instrumental soundscape. The orchestra is conducted by Tan Dun, who seems to be just as passionate and enthusiastic a conductor as he is a composer, painting vivid streaks of music during the performance. The orchestra even has their own vocal part during the Act I intermezzo, during which they shout along with the outlandish percussion instruments. Mr Dun’s score calls for a fascinating array of instruments, including Tibetan singing bowls, large Chinese drums, a 15-string zheng, ceramic chimes, and waterphones. These exotic textures and timbres are intertwined skillfully with the sudden stretches of music that might otherwise have seemed taken from a cheesy film soundtrack. As it is, the melodies – interspersed with rumbles and plucks and ribbons of atonality – sweep the listener along with the narrative, never overshadowed by theatrical effects.

The visuals of the opera, however, are just as impressive. The elaborate costumes by Emi Wada shimmer and interweave into rows and patterns of brightly-hued silk robes worn by the chorus. During the final scene, Emperor Qin wears glossy gold robes as he ascends the steps to the Empire, which shift nightmarishly as the music escalates. The choreography, by Dou Dou Huang, is engaging, especially during this final scene which features a solitary ballet dancer in addition to the Emperor at the foot of the stairs. These surreal stairs are one of many effects in Fan Yue’s fantastic sets, which also include layer upon layer of suspended stone slabs. The sets manage to become more and more remarkable with each scene.

The direction by film director Zhang Yimou overflows with an overall sense of extravagance and grace. The tension between individual characters and the more general injustice of the Emperor towards the wall-building slaves are executed with discernment. Although the pace drags at times, seemingly swallowed by its own opulence, the general impression is one of awe. Mr Yimou, all of the musicians, and Mr Dun have fused their talents to create a dazzling production.