A Majestic Imperial Chinese Saga Has Its Premiere at the Met
The relative rarity of world premieres at the Metropolitan Opera does not alone explain the buildup of good will, genuine excitement and high expectation over “The First Emperor,” the opera by the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, which had its premiere on Thursday night, conducted by the composer.
Over the years Mr. Tan has drawn new audiences to classical music with eclectic works that find common ground between Asian traditions and the avant-garde. His ferociously propulsive film score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won him both an Oscar and a pop-culture following. Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of this production, best known for his popular film “House of Flying Daggers,” also adds luster to the project. And Plácido Domingo, by taking on the title role, the first role he has created in his 38 years at the Met, contributes his formidable star power.
The story of the opera, based on incidents from the life of Qin Shi Huang, the prince and warlord who unified China through the brutal conquest of other states and became the country’s first emperor, is timely and psychologically complex. That all nine performances are essentially sold out is good news for the Met, for contemporary music and for opera over all. My guess is that a large number of the ticket-holders are opera neophytes attracted by the novelty of this project and hoping for a grand theatrical experience.
Still, music drives the theatrical experience of opera, and Mr. Tan’s score is an enormous disappointment, all the more so because whole stretches of it, and many arresting musical strokes, confirm his gifts.