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New York Metropolitan Opera’s ‘The First Emperor’ and ‘The Magic Flute’
Breckenridge Stadium 12 Theater
Jan. 13 and Jan. 23
In a welcome effort to bring its productions to more people, the Metropolitan Opera is simulcasting a series of live performances to movie theaters throughout the country. Breckenridge Theater in Little Rock has aired two of these so far in 2007: a premiere production of Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” and a reduced version of the perennial favorite, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Both were sung in English.
A simulcast can take viewers backstage and into the orchestra pit where the live audience doesn’t get to go. “The First Emperor” showed composer Dun — who also conducted — leading orchestra members in percussive shouts. Picture a dignified-looking violinist grunting “Hoh.”
The story of the first-century monarch Qin Shi Huang, who unified China, “The First Emperor” was a breathtaking spectacle.
Zhang Yimou’s (“Raise the Red Latern”) stylized staging complemented the work of costume designer Emi Wada (Kurosawa’s “Ran”). This was most evident in the final scene when the chorus, dressed in jewel tones with arms outstretched, resembled a huge stained-glass window.
Chinese-American composer Dun (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) said he wrote “The First Emperor” with tenor Placido Domingo in mind for the title role. Just as well cast were soprano Elizabeth Futral as the fragile princess Yue Yang; mezzo-soprano Michelle de-Young as the majestic Shaman; tenor Paul Groves as the emperor’s childhood friend and Yue Yang’s lover; and bass-baritone Hao Jiang Tian as the army officer who has been promised the princess’ hand.
The melodies, although beautifully sung, were angular and oddly accented, possibly the influence of Chinese opera. And, while the conventions of traditional European opera were also in evidence, the three-hour-plus work somehow lacked structural cohesiveness.
The mythic story of a brave young man on a mission to rescue a beautiful girl from danger might seem a bit timeworn without comedy. Thanks to the innovative direction and costume design of Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), the Met’s new production of “The Magic Flute” has plenty of that. Taymor also designed rod puppets to represent the fantastic creatures that populate “The Magic Flute” landscape — a menacing serpent, huge birds and giant cuddly bears.
But Taymor’s inventiveness would be for nothing without the opera’s talented cast. Top comedic honors go to baritone Nathan Gunn as the clownish Papageno. Second place goes to the Monostatos of bass Greg Fedderly, who might have captured first if he’d had more time on stage. Monostatos spends the entire opera trying to abduct the princess Pamina, soprano Ying Huang. A man of some girth, Fedderly plays the usually menacing character as a buffoon. In this he’s reinforced by his costume, which includes high-heeled shoes and a black-leather-strapped body stocking.
Prince Tamino (tenor Matthew Polenzani) is recruited by the Queen of the Night (soprano Erika Miklosa) to save her daughter Pamina from Sarastro (towering bass Rene Pape), who the Queen represents as evil. Usually costumed in blues and greens, the Queen first appears as a giant luna moth against a black background.
The singing, almost without exception, was excellent. Particularly notable were the pure tones of soprano Huang and the sustained phrases of bass Pape. Pittsinger’s voice had a warmth not always found in deep male tone. Miklosa’s second-act aria was spectacular; in the first act her vibrato could have been more restrained.
In a project of this magnitude, there are bound to be some technical glitches. The audio had singers’ voices fading at times. The black-draped puppeteers were fully visible to the film audience, which was entertaining for me but which some viewers might have found distracting.
“The Magic Flute” was the first Met simulcast; the recent Breckenridge showing was a replay. It has since aired on PBS, so the video may be available soon. Meantime, the Met will air high-definition live simulcasts monthly through April at Breckenridge starting at 12:30 p.m. Next up is “Eugene Onegin” on Feb. 24. The Met will replay “I Puritani” on Feb. 13 and “The First Emperor” on March 7 and 11, starting at 7:30 p.m.
— Helen Austin