The problem for me is in the English libretto, composed jointly by Tan Dun himself and by Ha Jin. The words just do not fit the music, which, quite clearly, is composed to fit Chinese speech rhythms. It is as though Tan Dun conceived the work in Chinese and then translated his thoughts to create the libretto.
Plácido Domingo, at an age when he could be forgiven for slowing down slightly, bravely tackles the title role of the Emperor Qin. He has some magnificent musical moments, particularly during the first act, despite the fact that he is singing Chinese voice rhythms, in English with a strong Spanish accent. I complained about the otiose English subtitles for the Met's Magic Flute a couple of weeks ago but subtitles were never more necessary than in this opera for anyone who wants to follow what is going on.
Domingo apart, this production is a triumph for Soprano Elizabeth Futral. She is a sensational Princess Yueyang and is the most successful of the soloists in combining the eastern and western elements in the music and in making sense of the libretto. Rather naughtily, in the making of film, Tan Dun tells her, in front of the the other principals, that she needs further coaching because she is not aristocratic enough during her lovemaking scene. She looks rather peeved but I think she could justifiably have impaled him on his own Zheng.
Nothing so dramatic occurs on stage. The costumes are a visual delight but the production is strangely static. The principals perform on a narrow stage with ten tiers of chorus behind them, so we get the impression more of an oratorio, something like Handel's Messiah, rather than an opera. I have to confess that I nodded off halfway through the second act as the chorus, building the Great Wall were singing "How long is this wall?" I awoke about twenty minutes later as Domingo was singing: "Lord of Heaven, how long?" I do not think that I missed much.