Imperfect American

29 Jun

The main problem I had with Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, which I saw at ENO on 25th June, was the nagging question, “why?”.  Why turn this into an opera?  And, if so, why in this form?

It’s based on an imagined biography by Peter Stephan Jungk and shows scenes from Disney’s life from the perspective of his dying days.  We see his return to his home town, Marceline, and scenes with his family, his team and his nurses.  There’s a reasonably touching scene in hospital with him and a small child.  One of his former employees, Dantine, keeps turning up to find some sort of redress, and a girl dressed as an owl who has never heard of Disney turns up to a party and is shown out – a memory of a time when Disney killed an owl.  We are told, over and over again, of his debt to Marceline, of his control freakery, of his Republican values.  I can see that it’s a parable about the emptiness and self-deception of the American Dream.

For most of the opera, I felt that what we were seeing was essentially undramatic, telling, not showing.  I felt I’d get more out of it if I were reading the original book.  There isn’t an over-arching plot, relatively few dramatic moments and much of Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto sounds clunky when sung  – particularly those parts where, inevitably people are talking management speak.  It felt a remote, uninteresting piece.

Philip Glass’s music is substantially less irritatingly repetitive than in other works.  The sounds coming out of the orchestra would frighten no-one and are easy and pleasant to hear.  I wasn’t convinced that they had a lot to do with situations on stage but it was quite enjoyable to listen to what was going on in the pit at those times when attention was wandering from the stage.

I could admire the production by Phelim McDermott, though it probably looked better from the stalls than from the Upper Circle.  Even in the front rows, the vast rotating metallic structure from which projections curtains and other material dropped and from which images were projected onto those curtains, proved distracting and interrupted the view.  The projections were clever and enjoyable and the Improbable Team imaginatively created Disney characters and there was a fair amount of wit in the depiction of the images.  It was slick and busy.  It kept the attention and, unlike Satyagraha, I did not find myself falling into welcome slumber.

The cast was headed by Christopher Purves as Disney.  He was, predictably, excellent.  He created a marvellously detailed acting performance and sang beautifully and caught the arrogance and insecurity of the man.  David Soar as his brother, Donald Kaasch as Dantine, Janis Kelly as the nurse and, particularly, Rosie Lomas as the two children, were excellent in support and it was hard to fault the remainder.  The chorus sang really well and the orchestra under Gareth Jones played clearly and, as I have suggested, made the score enjoyable and interesting.

I’m a Philip Glass-sceptic and I don’t really find myself persuaded by this.  It wasn’t bad, but I rather wondered what the point was and why I might want to see it again.

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