The Perfect American by Phillip Glass: ENO: Review

June 5, 2013

My-Perfect-AmericanThe Perfect American

Philip Glass

June 1st

English National Opera

Written by Philip Glass, The Perfect American imagines the final months of Walt Disneyā€™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 Jungkā€™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. Ā 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 ā€˜innocence in motionā€™ it was like being mobbed by the Norman RockwellĀ appreciationĀ society.

Short video clip from the ENO here:Ā 

8936587851_6e1868378a_hThe set from Phelim McDermottā€™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 Disneyā€™s life which only portray him as unpleasant, selfish, egotistical, paranoid and rude; the one or two moments of supposed tenderness just donā€™t ring true.

Read the synopsis here:Ā 

8937207582_f3a5b343ae_hThe music is fine, it swells, it soars, it endlessly rattles and thereā€™s some fun brass and soft repetitive echoā€™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 isnā€™t strong enough to play first fiddle to the score. Iā€™m no great fan of Glass but then I donā€™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 Iā€™d not heard before.

8936575085_c15c38fd09_hThe Opera only really came to life a few times for me, other than the above mentioned Chorus demanding Waltā€™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.Ā  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 Easterlinā€™s camp and knowing Warhol that brought the house down with his mincing pout. Great fun.

8937204300_4380774ed1_hThe rest of the singers are good and do what they must do but thereā€™s no great outshining vocal expression written in this piece, so thereā€™s not much for them to so other than support. TheĀ orchestraĀ is driven on with the relentlessĀ momentumĀ expected from Glass and Gareth JonesĀ conductedĀ like one of the steam trains that Disney was so fond of. I was expecting dramatic explosion and tension in this Opera likeĀ 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 youā€™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 promotingĀ at the moment.

English National Opera

London Coliseum

St Martins Lane



Jun 1, 6, 8, 13, 17, 20, 25, 27, 28 at 7.30pm
Pre-performance talk, Thu Jun 6, 5.15ā€“6.00pm, Ā£5/Ā£2.50 concs
Signed performance, Mon Jun 17

For more information or to book see the ENO website here:Ā