Chinese-American composer Tan Dun's hugely ambitious The Last Emperor received its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006 in a hugely elaborate production. Tan Dun has created a postmodern score, drawing eclectically on Chinese musical traditions, European bel canto opera, and contemporary compositional techniques. To some extent, he achieves a synthesis of these elements, but generally the music is most interesting when the Eastern traditions take prominence, and least inspired when it emulates the lyrical language and gestures of Romantic grand opera. The opening is particularly striking in its ferocious use of unconventional and Eastern percussion instruments dramatically placed on the stage, and makes for a beginning of what promises to be a thrilling opera. Unfortunately, such moments are few; the bulk of the opera, while tinged with some intriguing Eastern sonorities and harmonies, veers through a pallid lyrical landscape that holds minimal musical interest. The issue isn't so much the conventionality of Tan Dun's musical language as the fact that he simply seems to be writing "opera music" that sounds like what one would expect to hear in an opera house. His music doesn't provide the essential elements that make opera work, which are moving the drama compellingly forward and limning characters with whom we can empathize.
Whatever the weaknesses of the work, it receives a fabulous production. The composer conducts and draws committed and energetic performances from the orchestra, chorus, and soloists, all of which have immensely complex material. Domingo makes the most he can of the role of Qin Shi Huang, the ruler who brutally united the diverse provinces that became China. Even though he was in his mid-sixties when he created the role, Domingo's voice is strong and commanding. As the musician Gao Jianli, whom Emperor Qin wants to compel to write an anthem for his new nation, tenor Paul Groves is defiantly heroic. Elizabeth Futral's gossamer soprano is beautifully suited to the role of his daughter, princess Yueyang, and she acts with delicacy and poise. The remaining singers -- Susanne Mentzer, Michelle DeYoung, Hao Jiang Tian, and particularly Wu Hsing-Kuo -- do first-rate work. Zhang Yimou's direction is essentially naturalistic, although he employs conventions from traditional Chinese theater, but for the most part he fails to generate a convincing sense of drama. As a purely visual spectacle, the production is impressive. The sets by Fan Yue are monumentally conceived and exquisitely executed, and Emi Wada's costumes illuminate the production through their sometimes subtle, sometimes astonishing use of color.
Although The First Emperor is a flawed opera, its all-stops-pulled-out Met production is a heartening testimony to the institution's commitment to new work, and this two-DVD set beautifully documents the production.