Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The First Emperor

This is the first of what will probably be several posts on our trip back east...

Holiday Tree at Lincoln Center

After spending Christmas in Rhode Island and New Year's Eve in Boston, we went back to RI for New Year's dinner with Larry's family. We took the train from Providence to New York on January 2nd, got into Penn Station at 2:45, and were at the hotel by 3. It was fabulous--our
hotel was 2 blocks south of Central Park and across the street from Carnegie Hall. We couldn't check in till 4, so we decided to stow our bags and walk to Lincoln Center, to see how far we'd have to travel for the opera that night. It was only 8 blocks away--woo hoo!

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center

On the way back we saw Ethan Hawke and Martha Plimpton at Columbus Circle. They're both performing in
The Coast of Utopia right now, so we guessed they were heading to Lincoln Center for call time. We had an early dinner at nearby Cafe Europa and went back to check in and get ready for the opera (!).

The New York Times didn't love The First Emperor, but I did. Here's what I think: the NYT critic is paid to go to operas. His job is to look for errors, missteps, things to criticize--and to commend where he sees fit. I, on the other hand, go to the opera a few times a year (and had never been to the Met before this). I'm going to the opera because I want to be told a story, hear beautiful singing, look at pretty costumes--in short, I want to be entertained. I'm predisposed to like what I see, because I've paid (okay, Larry paid) for the ticket, made an effort to get dressed up for a fun night out, and am excited to see the opera legend Placido Domingo create a role, watch Tan Dun conduct the score he composed, see Emi Wada's beautiful costumes and experience a story directed by the amazing Zhang Yimou. How could it have been anything but a fabulous time?

Granted, the first act was a little s l o w . . .but hey, there was a lot of exposition to get through. The second act moved much more swiftly, and the percussive score (assisted by a HUGE gong downstage left) kept things humming along. My favorite character was the Yin-Yang Master, performed by Wu Hsing-Kuo (who came over from Peking Opera for the occasion). His singing and incredible dance skills completely mesmerized me every time he came onstage. I also thought Michelle DeYoung was great as the shaman, often blurring the line between singing and shrieking. The freakishly long fingernails and crazy costume helped to make her a very scary shaman. Placido Domingo gave a convincing performance as the self-absorbed emperor who decides not to have Gao Jianli killed for deflowering his daughter, because he needs the musician to finish writing China's new national anthem (his obsession with the anthem was pretty funny at times). Of course, Domingo's voice was phenomenal. It was nice to see him tackling a new role and embracing a different style of music--at this point in his career he could easily coast on recordings of old standards. I think it speaks highly of his artistry that he's still challenging himself.

The sets were innovative--lots of brick-like blocks suspended from wire, that continually changed figurations and depicted (at various times) steps, an amphitheater, the Great Wall in progress, the emperor's castle/fortress, and the completed Great Wall. The costumes were just gorgeous--Princess Yueyang's dress at the beginning of Act 2 was probably the prettiest (long robes in two shades of pink), but the chorus costumes in Act 1 and the Yin-Yang Master were cool beyond imagination. They wore double-sided robes, with masks on the back of their heads, and when they turned around they would perform arm movements that made it look like the mask-creature was shimmying and dancing on its own. Seriously creepy, and so cool.

Musically, I think Tan Dun was trying to give the vocal melodies a similar feel to the zither that was often onstage--that would account for the soaring lines, strange leaps and chromaticism that I heard throughout the opera. I thought it worked in its way, and though it did make for some slow moments I didn't think it was painfully slow or boring. It just wasn't the traditional Western operatic style that we're used to, and rightfully so considering it's not a Western story. There was a lovely duet between Gao Jianli and Princess Yueyang, and the slave song/national anthem was quite moving. My favorite musical moment would have to be the Act 2 intro/overture. Tan Dun took one of the motifs (from the slave song, I believe, but I could be wrong) and started changing it up in the orchestra, tweaking intervals here and there for an awesomely strange theme & variation moment. Maybe it comes from singing with the Esos for so long, but I love that stuff! If I were in the orchestra that would definitely be my favorite section to play.

We pre-ordered champagne for intermission and had such a wonderful, decadent time drinking it on the Grand Tier and people-watching. The chandelier/light fixture in the center of the staircase was sooo pretty and sparkly, and around the lobby there were costumes on display (Marc Chagall's Queen of the Night costume for The Magic Flute was very cool). There was also an exhibit going on of modern paintings inspired by opera heroines. I really liked John Currin's Helena, which you can sort of see
here (scroll to the bottom, the last thumbnail). All in all, our trip to the Met was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I hope I will get to have many, many more times.


Anonymous said...

Did you know that P&P star Jennifer Ehle is also starring in Coast of Utopia? You could have spotted her!

Christine said...

That sounds like it was such a great time!