Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Or so said a man sitting behind me during intermission at the Met yesterday evening. But Tan Dun's The First Emperor isn't that different from the Met's usual fare: It may be green tea–ginger to the usual strawberry-vanilla twist, but it's still ice cream. It sprinkles Western opera with some Chinese fairy dust, but the core of the piece is in a familiar form, down to the outlandish plot points of a crippled woman regaining the use of her legs after sex and a man biting out his own tongue. (Not to say that these types of development are typically Western, but that they'll be familiar to a Western audience.)

My esteemed colleague Steve Smith has praised The First Emperor's instrumental interludes and I completely agree with him. Most of the arias are uncommonly dull (notable exception: the seduction scene between Elizabeth Futral and Paul Groves), while the music leading in and out of them is often fantastic, especially the rolling clouds of ominousness. In other words: Tan Dun writes great soundtrack cues. No wonder much of the music reminded me of Japanese soundtracks of the 1950s and 1960s.

Zhang Yimou's grandiose staging would also be familiar to Met goers accustomed to mammoth scales, and I found it visually pleasing but also rather static. Of course a 140-strong choir will look good on stage; it's the universal rule of mass attraction: more is more. But if you just plop people down there, chances are the audience's eyes—and mind—will wander. Compare and contrast with Anthony Minghella's take on Madama Butterfly, which was aesthetically somptuous and had a real sense of dynamic movement.

Speaking of mass: I threw a real hissyfit when Fox cut both school-band routines during the Ohio State-Florida halftime on Wednesday. I had endured the stupidest sport of all for way too long just to see those bands and then Fox went to commercial! In America the opera and marching bands are the main refuges for those of us in love with the use of bodies on a large scale. Gigantic human tapestries…now that's something the old communist countries knew how to do.

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