Philip Glass and Rudy Wurlitzer's The Perfect American, which uses the last few months of Walt Disney's life as a lens to explore Disney's personal character and wider themes related to wider American culture, doesn't really work as an opera, at least for much of its running time.
Based on Peter Stephan Jungk's eponymous book and produced by Improbable in collaboration with ENO and Teatro Real Madrid, where the opera premiered in January of this year, American consistently fluffs or whizzes by potentially rich themes of fantasy and artifice, which clearly arc through both Disney's life and American culture in a more general sense (thanks in no small part to him). Whilst the opera makes moves towards those themes in the first act, notably presenting a portrait of Marceline, Disney's idealised home town and the 'soul of America', that is both moving and satirically effective in its sending up of the kind of fantasy America re-created by Disney in his cartoons and theme parks, this kind of rich, almost Dickian seam of unreality is not interestingly enough thematised for the first two thirds or so of the piece. Whilst the latter stages do bring some cohesion and depth to these themes, organising notions of authorship, illusion, simulation, and cultural artifice within the parameters of one man's personal pathologies, it takes the opera far too long to get to anything like an interesting and cohesive take on its material.
Other aspects of Disney's life, for instance his supposed aggression towards children and his hatred of unions and workers, are likewise hurried through in confusing and uninteresting ways. I applaud the opera's willingness to dig up and give proper coverage to the more unsavoury aspects of Disney as a man and capitalist figurehead. I also liked very much that it leavened these indictments with at least some limited sense of the positive effects of Disney's imaginative richness; the introduction of the character of Josh towards the end gives to the opera a much-needed sense of balance and also tonal contrast. However, this kind of detail was lacking earlier on, where ideas were brushed over and events and personal philosophies were jammed together unconvincingly like so many erratic scribbles on a blackboard.
This sense of shallowness came largely thanks to the amorphousness of the conflicts and stakes of the early-going scenes (the opera really lacks any sense of an antagonist, outside Disney's personal demons); to the lack of poetry or emotional insight in the libretto; to some abrupt transitions between and lack of insight within scenes; to an almost drastic over-use of Dan Potra's spectacular sets' movable screens and cameras, which did admittedly give the show a sense of filmic context, even if the absence due to copyright of any concrete Disney iconography really left the production feeling lacking in cultural specificity; and some sloppy acting and singing. The latter came chiefly from Rosie Lomas' Lucy, a role that felt under-written and poorly realised, though Lomas was more convincing as the naïf Josh, and Hazel George as the nurse, whose voice needed to be projected with much more clarity and force. Donald Kaasch does little apart from bluster with the anemic role of a disgruntled ex-Disney employee. Christopher Purves' Disney was vocally sturdier than some of his colleagues, even if the emotional stolidity of Purves' performance, which broadly seemed to capture something key about Disney's character, got in the way of any kind of shading or psychological depth that might have been brought to the role.
As a result of all this, the opera feels disjointed and ineffective for quite a bit of its running time, although as noted things improve in the latter stages, where some sense of overarching thematic cohesion and dramatic impact is gained, thanks amongst other things to the greater restraint and purpose shown in Phelim McDermott's direction, which had rather flailed earlier on.
Whilst the music should shoulder some of the blame for the disjointedness and lack of depth mentioned above--neither Glass' trademark dramatic concentration nor his opaque and abstract repetitions are really here in any direct, effective way, although tendrils of the latter wisp up throughout, as does his predilection for grand and beautiful minor key colours and see-sawing minor-major chords--Glass should be applauded for creating both a sense of place and a sense of contrast in relation to his previous work with the score for Perfect American.
The opening rumbling low string motif, building in intensity with syncopated woodblock before surging into the main music of the first scene, feels idiomatically operatic and pictorial in an impressive way. Later, grand congregations of Marceline townsfolk are accompanied by chugging rhythms and juicy fairground brass, and loyal Disney colleagues and family members sing out in a clear, almost Appalachian style. At points like those the score vividly conjures the kinds of carnivals and prideful Yankee choruses that feel right for the story, creating a sense of colour and definition within the opera. Elsewhere, apart from some interesting instrumental colours and some basically perfunctory, if nicely detailed, repetitious patterning, the score doesn't quite manage to compensate for the lack of sustained dramatic impact and momentum in the rest of the production.
Overall, then, this has to be considered something of a disappointment. A much firmer sense of organisation, internal purpose and depth, and overall cohesion really needs to be created if the promise suggested in the latter stages of the opera is to be translated into anything like the kind of integrated aesthetic and dramatic vision offered so potently in earlier Glass works, such as Einstein on the Beach.
Photos: Alistair Muir