Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Perfect American at the ENO

The Perfect American, Zachary James, Christopher Purves & Improbable (c) Richard Hubert Smith
The Perfect American 
Zachary James, Christopher Purves & Improbable
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
In collaboration with the English National Opera, Teatro Real Madrid, and the dance company Improbable, the music of Phillip Glass (1937 -) provides a film-score background to Rudy Wurlitzer’s semi-biographical look at the last few months in the life of Walt Disney. The Perfect American is a delightfully whimsical – yet, despite the humour, it does not shy away from taking a good look at the arrogant, complex man who used people to make his dreams, and that of the cartoon loving world, come true. 

Ripping apart the idea of a ‘perfect American’ someone who is following the American dream, Wurlitzer based his libretto on a book by Peter Stephan Jungk. This novel about Disney uses imaginary dialogue, events and protagonists to illustrate the man and his life. For example, everything that came out of Disney’s studio was credited under the name Walt Disney. Here Jungk invents the character Dantine, a disgruntled ex-animator who, because he wants to receive credit for his work, sets up a union and is fired. Dantine returns several times to haunt Disney – each time Disney responds with violence, evidently struggling between believing that the name ‘Walt Disney’ is necessary for his vision to succeed and that he has lost his own name to a corporation.

Similarly Disney is haunted by an owl (an amazing costume!) being both the owl Disney killed as a child, which spurred him on to drawing cartoons, and his own death. Very sadly Walt who was always looking forward to new technologies and wanted to be cryogenically frozen after his death, died aged 65 from lung cancer and was cremated by his family.

Much like Disney’s personality, the opera is made up of several different aspects which all forge into a cohesive whole. The event is cleverly mapped out, with backdrop after backdrop being ripped away to real another layer. Animations and films are projected onto the backdrop providing alternately the scenery and comment on the Disney characters or Disney’s state of mind. Stylishly drawn, any one section would be a ‘short’ in its own right. Improbable are both animals and animators, and their slightly surreal efforts are a pleasure to watch.

Christopher Purves is a commanding Disney, and is ably supported by David Soar, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, and the rest of the cast. Most operas have singing with some acting; this had acting with its singing. Director Phelim McDermott, who is also the artistic director of Improbable, ensured that at no time were people just singing - there was always something going on. From ironic to tragic the realness of the main cast was brought into relief by the deliberately humorous overacting of the chorus. Zachary James played a wonderful animatronic Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Speight played Andy Warhol for laughs.

This opera was commissioned to mark Glass’ 75th birthday (he’s now 76) and shows his ability to enhance, without overpowering, the singers. His style and interesting orchestration suits the story and accentuates the sentiments as it would a film.  It is Glass’ 24th opera. The ENO is making much of parallels with their production of Satyagraha: many of the cast are the same including Improbable. 

But go to this with a clear mind as it is completely different in feel, style  and mood. The staging is much better too – I couldn’t see the projections from my seat in Satyagraha, but for this the projections are floor to ceiling, and the spinning rig ensures that they are not always at the back. There is also so much happening at once that there is something for everyone to see.

The Perfect American is very stylised and minimal in origin, but yet manages to draw a complex and rounded picture of Disney while being entertaining and with the emotional range we expect of a classical opera. Humanity is drawn as a cartoon, but is no less understandable for that.
review by Hilary Glover

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