Walt Disney is famous as a man who brought colour and wonder to the lives of generations of children; a media tycoon, he created one the world’s most successful brands. Yet, what a grey and dismal evening at English National Opera is Philip’s Glass’s latest opera, depicting him in his final months in 1966. In fact, to call ‘The Perfect American’ an opera is to elevate it above the musical Wikipedia entry that it is.
Despite being based on the juicy and controversial biographical novel by Peter Stephan Jungk, which paints Uncle Walt as a bigoted, sexist racist among other negatives, Glass’s librettist Rudy Wurlitzer has produced a libretto of mind-numbing banality, unable to find a way of opening up the life and soul of this all-American figure, save through a chronological account of his career and the inexplicable interpolation of a child dressed as an owl and an animatronic Abraham Lincoln (Zachary James).
There is simply no drama here; we never discover anything about Disney – neither his talents, nor his turmoil. Even the disaffected animator William Dantine (sung convincingly by Donald Kaasch), who had been sacked for union activities, is curiously required to make his big exit by calling Walt a ‘mediocre CEO’, which seems a bit feeble.
Director Phelim McDermott also seems bereft of ideas. In the absence of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, one might have expected a Disney-esque firework-tastic spectacle, such as occurs at end of a day in Florida’s Magic Kingdom. Rather, he presents us with a revolving camera rig from which designer Dan Potra’s hanging gauzes repeatedly unfurl to host projections of unidentifiable daubings. And all of this continually suffused in grey light and accompanied by some very poor choreography, courtesy of Ben Wright.
The music similarly is devoid of imagination – there is the usual Glass chugging minimalism, the arpeggiated ostinati swapped between the various sections, and only very occasionally does it blossom into trademark Glass splashes of colour. Pity the poor principals, notably the excellent actor-baritone Christopher Purves (as Disney) – with a particularly impressive vocal turn from Pamela Helen Stephen (as Mrs Disney) – left to try and squeeze some drama out of the dirge-like vocal writing and shamelessly expositional script. That the singers and orchestra under Gareth Jones produced it slickly cannot excuse this vacuous exercise in music theatre. Jonathan Lennie