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East meets West in ambitious 'First Emperor'

NEW YORK -- World premieres have been dispiritingly rare events in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, but on Thursday night, the curtain went up on "The First Emperor," an ambitious new work by the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun.

Commissioned by the Met a full decade ago, the work is a proudly hybrid creation, with a mostly Asian creative team working on a grand Western stage, a story sung in English but imagined from the pages of ancient Chinese history, and an orchestra in which snare drums commingle with Tibetan singing bowls. The opera is directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "House of Flying Daggers") and stars Pla cido Domingo in the first role he has created at the Met.

With all the talent, time, and resources invested in this opera, I wish I could report that it is also an artistic triumph. But while there is plenty of imaginative writing, especially with the Eastern instruments, "The First Emperor" comes off as a mammoth ship drifting uneasily among all its influences, and it never quite finds port dramatically or musically. Probably the biggest problem is the static, often cumbersome, and intermittently cliche d English libretto that Tan Dun and the otherwise accomplished Chinese writer Ha Jin ("Waiting" and "War Trash") fashioned out of ancient Chinese historical records and a screenplay titled "The Legend of the Bloody Zheng" by Lu Wei . (Tan Dun is most widely known for his Oscar-winning score to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.")

The emperor of the work's title is Qin Shi Huang , a visionary but despotic ruler who built the Great Wall and strove to unite China, but at an enormous price in human lives. The opera centers on his ruthless quest to unify the country both through military conquest and by persuading his childhood friend Gao Jianli to compose an anthem that would spiritually sustain his new empire. Qin's beautiful but crippled daughter, Princess Yueyang , has been promised to Qin's top general, but she falls in love with the composer instead. Treachery, suicide, and murder ensue.

Somewhere here are the outlines of a classic operatic drama -- the destinies of a great empire clashing with the untutored passions of the heart -- but the libretto ultimately conveys little of the depth of the emperor's tyranny or the reach of his sweeping ambitions. The war of expansion happens offstage; the building of the Great Wall, represented abstractly by vast rows of stone-like blocks suspended from ropes, passes by quickly; and the character of Princess Yueyang comes off strangely like a spoiled contemporary teenager. She sings at one point in a duet: "Emperor, my father, you put your Empire above my love. Have you ever thought I am a woman with my own feelings? . . . No, I won't listen to you!"

Tan Dun's score, which he conducts himself, has plenty of fascinating moments but not quite enough to carry the evening. The music sets out to fuse avant-garde and classical styles, Western opera, and Eastern music inspired by various Chinese folk and operatic traditions. There is even a role for an actual Peking Opera singer, here the riveting Wu Hsing-Kuo .

But rather than adding up to something greater than the sum of its parts, Tan Dun's music too often seems to wander in a kind of hybridized netherworld. The composer seems comparatively at ease in the orchestral writing: evocative drumming with stones, creative use of orchestral dissonances, a few haunting string passages. But the vocal writing feels like an uncomfortable meeting of Puccini and the various Chinese styles, with lines tending to rise and fall in ways that may be very authentic, but do not always sit comfortably with the English libretto. (For example, Yueyang's mother at one point sings, "You are father's joy and pride," with the vocal line leaping awkwardly upward on the word "and.")

The pageant-like staging of this grandly scaled production mostly takes place on a giant staircase, often darkly lit, lending the affair a severe look, enlivened at times by the bright splashes of color in Emi Wada's attractive costumes. Domingo sings the title role, taking on a very difficult part at a point in his career when he could easily be coasting, and, on opening night, carrying it off with impressive accuracy and a deeply burnished tone. The rest of the cast soldiered valiantly through their roles, with Paul Groves as the composer Gao Jianli, Elizabeth Futral as Yueyang, Susanne Mentzer as her mother, and Michelle DeYoung as a luxuriously costumed shaman.

For me, the opera's dramatic force took hold only in the last few minutes, when after murder and suicide have dramatically reduced the cast, Qin rings a giant bell and demands that his great anthem finally be revealed. But instead of a triumphalist melody, the chorus sings the tragically beautiful song of the slaves -- one of the most compelling stretches of music in the opera -- in which the workers lament their long suffering in building the endless wall and dream of a peaceful grave near their homes.

As the curtain falls on the shocked and anguished Qin, it was hard not to think of Tan Dun's own biography and the opera's presumed parallels to the modern history of China. The emigre composer, who has openly compared his Emperor Qin to Mao Zedong, was "reeducated" in China's Cultural Revolution, becoming a rice farmer. The opera's ending came together as a moving statement on the pointless human sacrifice that lines the path to any abstract utopia. It was too little too late, but potent nonetheless.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

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