English National Opera
Written by Philip Glass, The Perfect American imagines the final months of Walt Disney’s life, including mythical imaginings of Abraham Lincoln and Andy Warhol. This latest opera from Glass, his 24th, was commissioned by ENO and Teatro Real Madrid to mark his 75th birthday.
This portrayal of Disney by Christopher Purves, from the semi fictional book by Peter Stephen Jungk’s is one of a driven myopic racist man who is determined to make his name live on down the centuries and to sell the world an odd fantasy idea of backwoods American all sweet-as-apple-pie and creepy as hell. Purves is lyrical and convincing but never adds any depth to the character. It feels like a Disney film in that way, all mush and no grit. In this endless presentation of packaged perfection and saccharine mass produced happiness there are only a few dissenting voices. The chorus of the ENO are in fine form in this production being as sinister as they can with a pure Stepford vibe, quite delightfully menacing too, damning any dissention with their shrill declamations of Disney being ‘innocence in motion’ it was like being mobbed by the Norman Rockwell appreciation society.
Short video clip from the ENO here:
The set from Phelim McDermott’s 59 production company is consistently on the go and suggestive of an operating theatre and film set and I found it fascinating to watch, it supported the change of action on stage well, the 360 degree projections adding to the feeling of isolation and mania that seems to surround Disney at all time, constantly at the helm of hundreds and hundred of people working away, and yet constantly on his own. The huge slowly turning spider-like camera rig, which the endless projection screen descended from, gave a feel of animation to the set and the projected drawings from Dan Potra and team are delightful. The dancers, although occasionally fun with the odd flash of choreographed wit, often felt silly and added on for no discernable reason other than to distract from a simple plot change.
No great depth is given to any of the characters and we never really find out what it is that Walt was so good at, or why people loved the Disney brand quite so much, we see a series of disjoined moments in the last few months of Disney’s life which only portray him as unpleasant, selfish, egotistical, paranoid and rude; the one or two moments of supposed tenderness just don’t ring true.
Read the synopsis here:
The music is fine, it swells, it soars, it endlessly rattles and there’s some fun brass and soft repetitive echo’s of folks tunes but it never really blows this show away, always following, never leading, seemingly to take its cue from the story, which simply isn’t strong enough to play first fiddle to the score. I’m no great fan of Glass but then I don’t loath him either, he gets an equal chance and at his best he is utterly exhilarating this felt good, but not exhilarating. The house was full and very enthusiastic in their applause and this production sure pulled in an interesting and much younger crowd to the Coliseum. I did rather enjoy the music though, it seems that Glass has developed a warmth and refection folded into and around his usually repetitive chromatic musings that I’d not heard before.
The Opera only really came to life a few times for me, other than the above mentioned Chorus demanding Walt’s innocence be worshipped, the end of the second act where an animatronic Lincoln (gloriously portrayed by Zachary James) needs fixing by Disney and appears to challenge him of his capitalist white supremacist views, before getting stuck and collapsing was wonderful. It was the only performance of conviction morality all night and is as funny as it was touching. The other great piece was walk on comedy from John Easterlin’s camp and knowing Warhol that brought the house down with his mincing pout. Great fun.
The rest of the singers are good and do what they must do but there’s no great outshining vocal expression written in this piece, so there’s not much for them to so other than support. The orchestra is driven on with the relentless momentum expected from Glass and Gareth Jones conducted like one of the steam trains that Disney was so fond of. I was expecting dramatic explosion and tension in this Opera like last years stunning ENO production of Satyagraha equally loosely based on the life of Ghandi but I left The Perfect American after a perfectly pleasant night out but not thrilled.
If you’re a fan of Mr Glass though or fancy seeing a modern opera very well staged this is must see and I would get along soon as it looks as if the ENO have another hit on their hands. Try one of the ‘secret seats’ the ENO are promoting at the moment.
English National Opera
St Martins Lane
Jun 1, 6, 8, 13, 17, 20, 25, 27, 28 at 7.30pm
Pre-performance talk, Thu Jun 6, 5.15–6.00pm, £5/£2.50 concs
Signed performance, Mon Jun 17
For more information or to book see the ENO website here: