A feast for the eyes

The design and production team that created the production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, broadcast in HD in January 2007 and subsequently released on DVD, deserve the highest praise. Set designer Fan Yue, costume designer Emi Wada, lighting designer Duane Schuler, choreographer Dou Dou Huang and director Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern fame) create some absolutely stunning images making full use of the great breadth and depth of the Met stage. Unfortunately the libretto and the music aren’t nearly as good and despite extremely committed performances from soloists, chorus and orchestra the work never quite gels.

So what is The First Emperor? It’s a two act opera based on the life of the emperor Qin unifier of China, builder of the Great Wall and ultimately buried with the famous terra cotta soldiers. In Tam Dun’s version of the story he, besides conquering China, is looking for the ultimate anthem to celebrate his life which will be produced by his childhood companion Gao Jianli. There’s a love triangle involving Gianli, the princess Yueyang and the general Wang. In true operatic style they all end up dead and Gianli’s revenge is that Qin’s anthem turns out to be the lament of the slaves building the Great Wall. It includes the line “When will our suffering end?” which was about what I was thinking by that point.

The problems, as so often with modern opera, start with the libretto. There is no poetry, literal or figurative, in it. It’s banal in the same way that most of the libretto of Doctor Atomic is banal. Mostly the vocal line is set in a dull declamatory style though the princess gets some passages with some coloratura interest and the chorus gets some Peking Opera like writing. What goes on behind, and almost independently, of the vocal line is all over the map. Sometimes it’s derived from the Peking Opera and sometimes from Chinese folk music; the mix at times sounding like the soundtrack for a Chinese propaganda film. At times it recalls the dissonances of modern European art music and at others it sounds like watered down Andrew Lloyd Webber. Write at the beginning the emperor asks “Is this music?”. I’m not sure he gets an answer. It’s got some good things going for it. There is some really good writing for percussion and the opening sequence using a Peking Opera trained singer, Wu Hsing-Kuo, as the master of ceremonies is weirdly affecting (this is the bit that got played over and over as the test track for subsequent Met HD broadcasts). All in all it doesn’t really cohere.

The performance is pretty good though. The stand outs are Wu Hsing-Kuo and Elizabeth Futral as the princess. Placido Domingo is, of course, solid as the emperor but really he doesn’t have much to work with. Good solid work too from Paul Groves as Jianli and Michelle deYoung as the shaman. The Orchestra and Chorus do wonderfully well coping with some highly unusual demands. For example, there is a passage where the orchestra downs instruments and engages in a sort of pitched shouting. There’s a whole core of Chinese percussionists too. The composer conducts with great fire.

Direction for video by Brian Large isn’t bad. It’s heavy on the close ups but there are enough setting shots to give us context. The picture is very good by DVD standards as one might expect but one really wonders(1) why this didn’t get a Blu-ray release for if any of the Met HD productions would have benefited from the extra video quality it’s this one. Sound is solid DTS 5.1 with LPCM stereo as an alternative. There are English, French, Italian, German and Spanish sub-titles. The documentation (English only) includes an essay on Tan Dun’s musical style and a synopsis. There is further English, French and German documentation included in PDF format. There is also a 20 minute rehearsal bonus track and a short interview with Domingo.

fn1. One doesn’t really wonder. For whatever reason it’s an EMI release and they don’t do Blu-ray.

Domingo’s Boccanegra

Simon Boccanegra was the work that persuaded me that maybe I did like Verdi after all. It’s a terrific score and if the plot isn’t without it’s artificialities it’s full of strong characters and strong emotions which Verdi brings to life with fabulous orchestral and vocal writing.

The most recent DVD version to appear is of the 2010 Royal Opera House production that was broadcast live on the BBC. It features Placido Domingo in his baritone incarnation in the title role. There’s a strong supporting cast with Ferrucio Furlanetto as his arch enemy, Fiesco; Jonathan Summers as the villain, Paolo; Joseph Calleja as the young rebel, Gabriele Adorno and Marina Polpavskaya as Boccanegra’s “lost” daughter, Amelia/Maria. The singing and acting are generally very strong. Placido is, of course, terrific. What more can one say? Furlanetto is a strong foil; excellent in both the prologue and the crucial final scenes. Summers is more than adequate though I might have hoped for more of a frisson when he curses himself. The real star for me is Calleja. He has a gorgeous voice and can float out a lovely pianissimo. His big aria early in the second act is particularly good but he is excellent all through the piece. The one weak link is Poplavskaya’s Amelia. It’s not bad. She acts well and looks the part but one really wishes for more beauty of tone. Pieczonka, in the Met HD broadcast, was much closer to the required vocal quality. Ensemble work throughout is excellent and there are some big set pieces! Antonio Pappano conducts brilliantly. He gets really good playing from the orchestra which is pretty crucial as there are some cruelly exposed woodwind and brass lines. He manages drama and urgency while still giving the singers room to do their thing when they need it. All in all, this is musically very satisfying.

The production, by Elijah Moshinsky, is pretty conventional. It’s a period setting with simple designs that suggest renaissance paintings. There are a few nice touches like the graffiti on the walls in the exterior scenes but mostly the look is just undistracting. There’s nothing beyond the text in the way the story is told either. Blocking is fairly basic and there’s a fair bit of “park and bark”. One senses that Moshinsky’s efforts have gone into character development rather than in trying to make any bold statement.

Sue Judd directed for TV and video and it’s a conventional TV view with too many close ups. She needs to watch some of François Roussillon’s recent work. We also get little chats from Pappano between scenes. These probably work OK first time through but I think would get pretty tedious on repeat viewing. There are short bonus features on  WorshippingWorking with Placido Domingo and Rehearsals with Elijah Moshinsky. The technical quality is very good. It was filmed in HD and the picture is clear and detailed. The DTS 5.1 sound is really excellent; detailed, very spacious and coping very well with the more congested passages. There is also LPCM stereo. This really deserves a Blu-ray release but it’s on EMI who so far seem not to have gone that route(1). There are English, French, Spanish, German and Italian subtitles. The documentation is missing from my library copy but apparently contains a track listing, synopsis and “notes”.

This is definitely worth a look and it will be very interesting to do a detailed “compare and contrast” if I can get my hands on the Sony DVD release of the 2010 Met HD broadcast with Domingo, Morris, Giodarno and Pieczonka.

fn1. EMI was recently sold to Universal; parent of Deutsche Grammophon, and Decca so I suppose anything is possible.

Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie is one of my all time favourite operas and has some absolutely gutwrenchingly beautiful music. The Met production had Susan Graham, Placido Domingo and Paul Groves. This looked set to be amazing. It wasn’t quite though it was very good indeed and the problems were all with the production. Despite Peter Gelb announcing before the curtain that Ms. Graham and Mr. Domingo were both suffering from colds the singing was first rate across the board. I’m looking forward even more to Susan Graham singing this with Russell Braun and Joseph Kaiser next year in Toronto.

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