Tan Dun: The First Emperor [DVD] 
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Legendary tenor Placido Domingo stars in this visually stunning production of Tan Dun's opera which tells of Emperor Qin's quest for a national anthem for his new country and his ill-fated decision to force a rebellious but talented young composer to write it. One of just six composers to conduct their own works at the Met, Tan Dun led all the performances of the first run of the opera. Acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou ('Hero', 'Raise the Red Lantern') directs and was instrumental in the opera's creation, having worked closely with Tan Dun during the writing process.
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Top Customer Reviews
Tan Dun is one of the most significant artists of our age, having become a living bridge between the finest artistic traditions of the West and of the many thousnd years of artistic tradition of the most populous nation on Earth. He manages to integrate what is alien to each culture in a manner that has huge popular appeal yet has the highest artistic credentials of originality and imagination.
Tan Dun is perhaps better known to Western audiences as the composer of the music for the oustanding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but is also known as a writer of film music in the East. His concert and chamber music is probably the most assimilable of of all attempts at Western Chinese musical integration. His Heaven Earth Mankind Tan Dun - Symphony 1997 is possibly the best known of his concert works, composed around a set of bells that had recently been excavated in Hubei province, and dating from the 5th Century BCE and include beautiful parts for the Cello of Yo-Yo Ma and children's choir. Another astonishing example of his work with which I am familiar is Tan Dun: Ghost Opera which was perfomed in conjunction with the ever intrepid Kronos Quartet and scored for instruments that included stones, paper, water and gongs.Read more ›
The Second Act of First Emperor by Tan dun contains virtually all the plot and drama, and with the addition of about an extra quarter of an hour to fill in the back story we would have an absolutely great opera with an outstanding synthesis of Chinese and Western music.
In the Second Act the high production values shine through, with Domingo as the First Emperor and Elizabeth Futral as his daughter identifying completely with their roles, and singing the difficult music superbly.
However the first Act is a disaster, a flimsy back story is endlessly protracted, the libretto seems the work of a different writer, and the writing is very poor indeed. Domingo and Futral who excel in Act 2 seem unable to identify with their music and roles, and I am not surprised.
Also the extravagant resources needed in Act 1 probably mean there will be very few productions.
The MET obviously invested a lot of resources and money into this project, and in terms of production succeed brilliantly. Also the orchestra had a very difficult time assimilating Chinese characteristics, and the inclusion of traditional Chinese instruments is fascinating, although this occurs mainly in the successful Act 2.
As this seems to have been a joint project between the Met and the composer Tan Dun from inception, I believe the MET should have brought its world class expertise to resolve the Act 1 problems.
If it were possible I would award 1 star for Act 1 and 5 stars for Act 2.
As Act 2 it is virtually the complete opera.I would recommend anyone interested to watch this.
Placido Domingo in an unusual, really interesting role.
(I was so happy to visit one of the MET performances in NY.)
But, the English language does not really fit the Chinese music.
(Just for comparison remember the impression to listen to Verdi sung in English or German!)
Completely inacceptable is the fact that EMI has published (nearly a year ago) a whole series "MET live in HD" just on DVD, but so far not a single BD!
Dear EMI! I did not buy the BD-player just to enjoy it's upscaling function, but not really to reach HD quality.
For something like this DVD is really yesterday's technology.
And if you do not publish HD today, within a few years it also will be yesterday's snow. Then we have 4K/ 8K in 3D and Full HD has to be upscaled. (Even Full HD is just nothing comperad to be in the opera house.)
Please, additionally do publish the "Paeony Pavillion" on BD. This is sung in original language. During the past years we had several broadcasts on public and pay TV channels (mainly in poor shifted letterbox quality), but not a single publication on DVD/ BD. Do you want to have private copies "circulating" all the time?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The opera is full of symbols. I am sure I don't even understand them all yet. Although the obvious theme is about the anthem, seems that the suffering of the builders of the Great Wall is a much more profound one. The wall is built to protect against the barbarians, while behaving in a barbaric way. Is this opera a critic to Mao (and/or others)?
The music is different, interesting and enjoyable. The singers are first quality and the Chinese performers very interesting. This production is the first one. May be it is not perfect, or it could have been done differently. I will leave that judgment for the future, when new performances are produced. Seems to me that a film production could be interesting, (like Chaudet's film of Stravinsky's "Le Rossignol").
I strongly recommend this DVD to those interested in the new world, not only of Opera, but the global village and China's cultural integration with the world in particular.
There has been a large amount of harsh criticism of "The First Emperor" and while I concede that I do not have the opera experience or musical knowledge that I assume these experts have, I have to say that I would have been more open to these criticisms if it did not feel like the vast majority of the complaints were either based in ignorance or a blind reverence of past operas. For example, many have described the music as being "unlistenable," but to me it feels like this majority of these criticism comes from critics who are completely ignorant to and unfamiliar with non-Western musical styles rather than any constructive criticism. Accusations that the plot of the opera is silly and ridiculous also strike me as ignorant given the equally ludicrous plots and twists that seem to occur in just about every single opera I have heard or watched.
I will concede the point that the libretto for "The First Emperor" is problematic. The music is excellent and the libretto, while somewhat stilted, works. However, the fusion of the two simply does not work. That being said, I cannot say that I personally expected the modern lyrical-equivalent of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" from a composer and librettist that are not native speakers of English. When I see that even John Adams and Philip Glass are often criticized for poor setting of the English language to music, I feel that perhaps due to our familiarity with English as well as the fact that popular music and even Broadway musicals set words to music in a very different way than opera, we have been conditioned in a way that makes English in opera sound awkward to us. As such, perhaps we ought to accept the "awkwardness" of English in opera and move on instead of fixating on this. After all, critics and audiences all seem to enjoy a great number of operas in foreign languages that they do not understand and so for me, the libretto of "The First Emperor" and its setting to music is not a deal-breaker for me.
For what it's worth, I would have liked to see the libretto to "The First Emperor" in Mandarin Chinese, especially since I imagine that Tan Dun and Ha Jin would have been able to better set their native language into music. However, I wonder whether or not the Metropolitan Opera (who commissioned the opera) would have been interested in a non-English "The First Emperor" or if Placido Domingo would have been willing to memorize an entire role in Chinese.
In summary, if you are interested in a fusion of Western and Eastern musical styles or are a fan of Tan Dun's film work, I would recommend "The First Emperor," which is well-captured on this DVD. I am especially glad that this DVD exists because it captures the original production of the opera, which was revised (for the worse in my opinion) a year later.
Tan Dun's innovative percussion writing was also spectacular. Dun is actually already quite well known for his percussion skills - you can search for his Youtube Symphony with the London Symphony orchestra and you'll see car rims and hubcaps incorperated into the score. It may look or seem ridiculous, but when you hear it you'll be amazed at how well it works.
The instrumentation in The First Emperor is very balanced between the classical European instruments and traditional Chinese instruments. Equally so there is also an amazing balance between European style singing and Chinese style - a narrator introduces the opera who he himself is a traditional Chinese Opera singer (the very talented Wu Hsing-Kuo). This introduction will give the audience quite a start and a lot to expect - this is as traditional Chinese as you can get. If it sounds odd - then I'm afraid you're SOL - as this is very accurate to tradition including his elegant costume, bright face paint, contorting dance moves, spoken text, and what many would consider strange and awkward sounds and shouts. If this cannot be taken seriously, then I think the listener should get to study Chinese music a bit before listening to this opera.
The story itself may seem a bit overly romantic or old-fashioned to many but there is actually a lot of truth to this. The actions taken by the emperor were all true - not only the burning of books, the ruthless conquering, but also the idea of wanting unity and having a beautiful anthem. Though of course historical accuracy can be called into question as the text was written long after these events and very open to bias as they were written by the Han. Also: though Emperor Qin did indeed want an Anthem - he most likely didn't desperately spend night and day to find the theme he wanted. Of course - most characters in operas don't exactly do many things that we'd consider mentally stable, but that's opera anyway!
These elements are what makes this opera so beautiful and also very intelligent. It is a blend of not only the east and the west, but also the past and the future. This is such an innovative yet traditional piece at the same time. It's as though the four subjects came together from around the compass to meet at a center and create this incredible work of art.
There's a criticism that many have and a piece of me also has which is only a personal bias of mine: the text is not fluidly put together in the music. Stresses are on unimportant syllables; sentences are not stated as they normally would be. Less-important words such as "the," "and," "of," "or," ,"with" etc are elegantly ornamented with melisma while the words which actually tell the story (the nouns and verbs etc) are too-often written syllabic or quietly. But this criticism can also be looked at the other way: This is also an old style of setting text to music. The masters of the past including Brahms and Bach also did this. Of course, German-speaking critics would sometimes make fun of them for this style as well, so this is where one must keep in mind that it is a different vocal writing than what's normally done. Personally though, I did not think it worked. Even so, the music was beautiful enough for me to not dislike it. I would suggest putting subtitles on though since with this vocal style it's extremely hard to understand them.
Though understanding them is another issue when it comes to certain singers. Domingo's acting as always was spot-on. He clearly demonstrates a three-dimensional Emperor Qin.. even in his eyes there are thousands of emotions, thoughts, and memories. His tone was crisp and brave. His diction, at least in this performance, was definitely not his best. Consonants are just as important as the sung tones. Diction was definitely lacking in this particular performance, but all else was spot-on.
Elizabeth Futral's performance as Princess Yueyang disappointed me in her tone. Her vibrato was far too wide especially in the first act.I did not enjoy her singing until the second scene of act two (the last part of the show). Acting and diction were all there, but tone not as much.
There is though a lot to be impressed with. Paul groves not only nails tenor high Cs, he sustains them with confidence. Michelle DeYoung is essentially called to sing every note within the mezzo soprano range and beyond; not only does she hit the C above the staff but also the alto's low F (successfully sustaining them too).
The choreography and art is also a visual spectacle - You'll still be impressed if you put it on mute! The second act features an incredible dancer by the name of Dou Dou Huang - his contortions and fluid dancing made me pause and rewind just to see it again.... something I avoid doing since I tend to be a purist when it even comes to watching DVDs... but I just HAD to see it again!
Above all... I think this is one of the most intelligent compositions ever put forth. Some will find certain aspects disappointing - most of all some of the singing mishaps of tone/diction or the style of vocal writing. Opera though is much more than singing - it is every aspect of theatre combined into one: it is art, stage design and direction, a script, music, singing, and most of all: teamwork. I don't think we could've gotten a better team to have created this show.
I highly recommend this DVD to all - but I also highly recommend doing a bit of research on traditional Chinese Music and opera before watching it, or you could find yourself very confused.
Now I want to quote my husband who played flute for 25 years in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
"The performance is wonderful, great singers, marvelous costumes, wonderful musicians, and stage presentation is really amazing! After all this, I can remember playing so many 'first performances' and lamenting that I didn't study (flute) to play this garbage, or semi-OK pieces. The performance combines Chinese and Western music. One of the leads is actually from the Chinese Opera and sings in Chinese, although the rest of the work is done in English.
The idiom is unfamiliar to me, but strangely haunting, the overall effect is stunning! The soundtrack for movie, Crouching Tiger - Hidden Dragon might be familiar. Well, this is much deeper and well worth the trouble to find a chance to know the work!
Modern music is worth listening to, if you are careful selecting it!!"
We feel Tan Dun is truly one of the great composers of our day!