My Last Emperor

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Dec 22, 2006, 12:50:57 AM12/22/06
Within about twenty minutes after the start of The First Emperor at the MET
tonight, I thought of the interchange between a mortally ill Freud and a
journalist after Freud arrived in England from Nazi Austria. "Professor
Freud," asked the reporter, "do you think that the coming war will be the
last war of mankind?" Answered Freud, "It will be my last war anyhow." Half
way through the first act, I realized what a brilliant librettist von
Hofmannstahl had been, and as the first act ended, I thought, quite
spontaneously, that the only thing missing was Catherine Malifitano. My mind
was so numbed in the second act by a pastiche of styles, allegorical modes,
and references, clear and occluded, to every bit of chinoiserie in opera in
the last three hundred years that all I could wonder was whether the
composer/conducter, Tan Dun, would actually be booed when he came out for
his curtain call. In the event, he was booed by several people (not me -
although I should have), but the tepid applause from a glittzy opening night
audience was probably even greater judgment on this insipid, self-indulgent,
and ultimately boring evening. Although I did not boo, because it was the
work that deserved to be booed, and not, I had thought, the conductor, I
regretted not booing him for almost entirely avoiding acknowledging
excellent contribution of the chorus to the performance.

The actual sound of the orchestra, without reference to vocal line, is
marginally interesting - it is a real work out for percussion, but a boring
one, at least for an audience, after a while, because whatever happens is
relentless. In the second act, a huge temple bell stands on stage, and for
the last half hour it is banged away at almost consistently - for a few
minutes, it's quiet (very much 'my grandfather's clock' in a limp coup de
theatre). There a a few nice minutes with two harps immitating Chinese
instruments (as far as I can few, few actual instruments are used), but
there is virtually no interest that I can see or hear in the vocal lines.
There are attempts, perhaps accurate, to immitate or adapt Chinese modes,
but they seem affected and, frankly, boring after a while, and the young
girl sings in a more conventional coloratura style that makes a hash of the
'genuineness' of the Chinese modes.

For those who are wondering, Domingo is a hero for taking this on - he acted
well (though it's a stereotyped role as all the roles in this are), and
while he didn't sound that good in the first act, in the second act, where
the vocal line is higher, he sounded like his old (ie, young) self again. He
may have been tired from all the rehearsal, or the first half may just lie
too low, but it's clear that there's still a lot there (with lots of breath,
no wobble tonight, and fine tone quality) just wasted on this project as far
as I am concerend. Furtral also sounded clear as a bell, and tried to make
something of her role, but what could she do with such boring vocal

The whole staging is built around the the visual sense of 11 or 12 rows of
bleachers, as it were, going upstage and higher up in each row, as if they
were steps up to heaven. A few stage pictures are marvelous - the opening
scene of each act (in act one, over 100 singers (and I suppose supers) are
lined up in columns and rows in costume on those bleachers, and it's a
wonderful moment) and there are few moments elsewhere, but generally it's
static and loses interest quickly. The prime problem is that there's no
drama - not in the story, not in the music ,and not in the interaction -
it's all presentational, freize-like as to the libretto and the staging
both, with English lyrics that sound like a Monty Python skit on composing
fortune cookies - all so serious and 'high toned' so as to be so numbing as
to make one want to laugh ("Here is the great wall, and outside the grass
and the sky meet on the small knoll") or something like that. There was more
wit in the first fortune cookie I ever got ("Wash face in morning, and neck
at night") though. This may be the first and last time that the audience as
a whole stays through both acts, and for that, future audiences will be
wiser than we.


Dec 22, 2006, 1:39:01 AM12/22/06

Thanks, REG,
You really took one for the team tonight. I'm sure we all appreciate
your patience. Thanks again for the report.


Dec 22, 2006, 6:34:56 AM12/22/06
You're welcome, Mark. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you on the
group, Mark, if I think it will help improve you.

"Mark" <> wrote in message

La Donna Mobile

Dec 22, 2006, 8:09:57 AM12/22/06

Thanks for that REG. I listened in on the web, and I liked it. Note, not
love, not thought wonderful. But liked it. Well, I liked a lot of the
drumming, and thought that some of the orchestral sounds were
interesting. I was in La Cieca's chatroom and I think I probably liked
it more than anyone else in there (total of about 50, averaging 30).

But I'm not sure that I liked it as an opera. Someone mentioned Cirque
du Soleil and to me it seemed more like music for a visual spectacular
with fire eating dragons etc. The vocal line did absolutely nothing for
me, although all the singers and especially the prompter came over well.

I did feel that it is not the worst opera I have heard this year. That
title goes to Vaughn Williams' Sir John in Love, with Purcell's Indian
Queen also being filed under dismal.



Dec 22, 2006, 4:37:45 PM12/22/06

REG wrote:
> You're welcome, Mark. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for you on the
> group, Mark, if I think it will help improve you.
> "Mark" <> wrote in message
> Thanks, REG,
> You really took one for the team tonight. I'm sure we all appreciate
> your patience. Thanks again for the report.

Wow, REG, there's quite a dust-up on OPERA-L about this performance.
Some very strong feelings.

La Donna Mobile

Dec 22, 2006, 4:55:34 PM12/22/06

The dust-up isn't really about the performance but about the trash talk
from someone who has been annoying me for months her closed mind on
matters musical. I was surprised she even bothered going, and am sure
she had made her mind up to hate it even before she left home. Let's
just say it was one of those posts that provoked a reaction from Charlie
that I (broadly) agreed with, in thrust if not necessarily in every
little detail


Jan 4, 2007, 8:31:32 PM1/4/07
I, too, should have booed. I was able to, momentarily, entertain myself
by re-imagining the entire enterprise as a parody of opera. Boring
beyond belief.

Jan 4, 2007, 11:08:58 PM1/4/07
I STILL can't decide if I want to bother with this. Sounds like it
would certainly make ANY Puritani refreshing in contrast.

But REG -- you say the libretto was like fortune cookies. Does that
mean you added "in bed, between the sheets" after each line?

Hans Lick

"A metaphor is when you say one thing and mean something else, but
you're not lying." -- Gutenberg! The Musical!

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