And now a few words about the first act of The First Emperor. No, cherished reader, not because it's late and I need my sleep do I bring you news only of the first half of this much-hyped premiere. Rather because I am not a food writer, and I was enjoying a plate of tacos al pastor at Hell's Kitchen's El Azteca during act two of The First Emperor, the ghastly and unlovable flop that landed with a thud on the stage of the Metropolitan this evening. And no, I'm not trying to make up for my sunny tone of late. If I'd been on the aisle, I might very well have left twenty minutes sooner.
To pass the time, since there's not much to say, here's a brief history of your humble correspondent and 20+ century music. At age tennish he was taken by an overly optimistic father to a program of chamber works by, I'm not sure, did Xenakis write for violin and piano? Someone whose name struck ten-year-old ears as exotic and whose music scared a young Maury away from the twentieth century for the next six or seven years until Poulenc and Ravel provided an easier way in. Time passes, M.d' becomes a perfectly respectable listener who, while he might have to pretend he gets Ligeti, is not one to go into things raring to declare them monstrosities. Or even lifeless, hectoring bores, but we'll get there...
Now, I'll admit I went into last year's excellent An American Tragedy wary that it might be one of those pieces of dutiful modernism that loses its way between 21st century concessions to the existence of the audience and presumably conservatory-instilled horror of sounding anything like Puccini, never finding a personal voice and never displaying any understanding of what people want from an opera. I'm just talking about a basic narrative thrust that is reflected somehow in the vocal line. Lulu meets this criterion just the same as Don Giovanni, and opera audiences flock to it despite its daunting language. Am-Trag turned out to meet it admirably as well. The First Emperor fails spectularly.
Perhaps JSU is right and the libretto is the rug that got yanked out from under things. I'm trying to imagine act one with a text less redolent of Vogon poetry, but I just can't do it. The problem with putting over ideas that feel mythic in scale is that mythology (pace Joseph Campbell) can be a very local thing, and so your language is going to have to be extremely assured when, let's say, you show a princess seducing a prince by spitting food into his mouth. If it's unconvincing, everything will just seem exotic with all the worst weight of that word. If it's truly ungainly, you may have a comedy on your hands. Toss in some leaden music with nary an appealing vocal line in the first hour and a half, and the question you see in the eyes of your audience might just be, "how long 'til that thrill ride, Akhnaten?"
There is almost nothing to redeem this work, unless act two includes a screening of Xanadu. Paul Groves, reliably sympathetic and sweet of voice, almost manages to puncture the dreadful gloom of the scene in which his character fucks Elizabeth Futral so hard she can walk again --insert standard Anna Russell disclaimer--but not really, not quite. Futral is asked to sing wretched, clumsy sounding lines, though fortunately her diction is not as good as Groves' and you can't always make out the deeply unpoetic libretto. (One exception I regret most is when she calls his mouth "a stubborn oyster.") Groves, by the way, is the Anatol in the Vanessa that keeps opening at the hallucinated Metropolitan Opera in my head, and he's swell.
Suzanne Mentzer, in her only Met appearance this season, had about two lines in the first act, which is criminal. Michelle de Young had many, and I have no other hearings to judge her by but I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she sounds better in less grating music. Hao Jing Tian displayed a bit of grace when he was given the opportunity.
I just have no way to judge Domingo. He was certainly there, ergo the sold-out run.
The design is briefly striking, but largely static. An illustration of what Minghella's Butterfly might have looked like with a good deal less taste and imagination, it is arresting in that way that doesn't last very long. Another production might choose to root the poetastery of the libretto in something a little more literal, but with any luck, there will never be another production.
ETA: apparently not a flop. Jonathan has noted a screaming audience response on the broadcast...I mean, who's to call it a flop when it sells really well, but I did assume people would hate it. Opinion on Opera-L, for what that's worth, was looking pluralistic when I checked in last night.