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A lawyer who represents himself, it is said, has a fool for a client. The same ought to be said for the composer who writes his own libretto. Tan Dun and Ha Jin's leaden, drama-free text for The First Emperor nullifies what seems like lots of creditable work from the many other people involved in the world premiere piece, not least Tan Dun himself (while wearing the composer hat).
The writing is poor in so many ways that it seems unfair to catalog them. Most apparent is the embarrassingly semi-poetic diction, which proves (and more) the dictum that no one has ever been a very good poet outside his own language. Neither librettist is even a poet in Chinese, which (noticably) makes things worse. Metaphors wander in and out with little rhyme or reason, and characters speak in cornball formulations apparently rejected from Star Wars prequels.
But even discounting this as some amusing quasi-foreign patina, the libretto as such fails entirely. Characters: cardboard, or worse. Drama: none to speak of. Neither librettist is a man of the theater (Ha Jin is a novelist and even, according to his in-program interview, demurred from the assignment at first because he knew nothing about opera), and that too shows. They feel no need to show action as such for the first hour, and if this is the sort of insanity that Wagner could make fascinating, they're... not Wagner.
Nor is there a strong thematic or characteristic thread. The title character, whose loss of all beloved in the course of becoming emperor provides what overall plot the opera contains, could be the backbone but isn't. As written for and well-sung by Placido Domingo, he's not any sort of frightening tyrant while onstage but a toothless sitcom dad. There's one bout of scarcely-credible mustache-twirling book-burning at the beginning, but that element is quickly dropped, as every following scene shows Domingo coaxing and wheedling his recalcitrant daughter and foster brother with talk of the good of the country.
That this emperor was not allowed to be shown as even half-frightening and tyrannical is a huge flaw, and several possible reasons came to mind. First, it could be in order to protect and accomodate Domingo's star persona. Second, it could be to avoid offending the Chinese government, whose excesses are clearly allegorized here (at least until the end -- see below). Third, Tan Dun and Ha Jin could actually have thought that the drama was best served by humanizing the character 90-100%, which simply shows their misunderstanding of the stage. None of these possibilities are particularly happy to contemplate.
The other possible thread is in the composer, also well-sung by Paul Groves. Most of the opera agonizes over his dilemma of serving the emperor and getting what he wants or standing up for principle. It is transparently these Chinese artists' self-reflection on their getting quite cozy (rather too so for director Zhang Yimou, whose Hero was an appalling justification of tyranny) with the current Chinese regime... The composer, it turns out, means well, but is seduced by love of the princess to agree to help.
This could go somewhere, but it doesn't. With everyone dropping dead, the composer is shown to die (because the princess died), but also to have had his personal revenge by putting his enslaved people's song of suffering in as the big imperial anthem. This is pure populist hokum -- we're not going to see labor camp songs from any of these folks -- sidestepping the real and perhaps tragic dilemma in which the real artists are enmeshed. Neatly done, but unsatisfying.
What's left? The music. Often derivative -- echoes of everyone from Wagner to Barber and Copland to Puccini (of course) to actual Chinese musicians -- the score nevertheless contains many interesting textures and sonic colors, particularly in the orchestral interludes. (Actually, my favorite part was the bizarrely obvious Stravinsky ripoff.) As absolute music, it deserves a listen, and a concert suite from the opera might be a success. But every time characters appear, the proceedings grind to a halt. Every line, sentiment, and action is telegraphed; the obviousness of it all makes hearing the music as such almost impossible. Indeed, over the radio the piece may even work. But in the theater, it is a terrible waste of time.
If the Met commissions another work from Tan Dun it should be for the Met Orchestra. Please leave opera commissions to people who actually understand opera -- e.g. Tobias Picker.