The Not So Perfect American

SpainSpain P. Glass, The Perfect American: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real, Dennis Russell Davies (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 22.1.2013 (JMI)

World Premiere Performance

Production: Teatro Real and English National Opera

Direction: Phelim McDermott
Sets and Costumes: Dan Potra
Lighting: Jon Clark
Videos: Leo Warner

Walt Disney: Christopher Purves
Roy Disney: David Pittsinger
William Dantine: Donald Kaasch
Hazel George: Janis Kelly
Lilian Disney: Marie McLaughlin
Sharon. Sarah Tynan
Diane: Nazan Fikret
Lucy/Josh: Rosie Lomas
Abraham Lincoln: Zachary James
Andy Warhol: John Easterlin
A Doctor: Juan Noval-Moro

Picture from the Madrid production of "The Perfect American"
Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

The world premiere of an opera is always a very special occasion, especially if it is the work of a renowned composer like Philip Glass. Credit is due to Teatro Real’s artistic director, Gerard Mortier, who brought this opera to Madrid from the smoldering ruins of his aborted would-be stint at the New York City Opera.

The libretto to The Perfect American is by Rudy Wurlitzer and in turn based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novelized biography of Walt Disney, Der König von Amerika. The libretto is the major weakness of the opera: there is no dramatic action, only the demystification of the figure of Disney through a series of scenes that show (variously fictionalized) key points in his life. There is no drama, nor contrast, just a particular view of the character, emphasizing his reactionary ideas, his racism, his selfishness, his desire for notoriety, and his need to leave an enduring legacy.

There is nothing unusual in the fact that a character as famous as Disney is shown in a whole different light to the usual image we receive. This has happened to many characters in literature and opera—think Don Carlo, Philipp II, or Mary Stuart. The problem is that what might work in a novel or in a biography does not necessarily work as an opera libretto, especially if there is little drama and still less differentiation between characters. We are near enough in time to Disney for the story to resonate, but I doubt if this will endure beyond this generation.

Jungk’s Disney may bear surprises for those who never heard about the more salacious rumors and factoids of Micky Mouse’s creater. But it’s not enough to engage the attention of the audience. Dantine, a trade unionist and cartoonist fired by Disney and now back on his trail, might have kindled the necessary interest, but Wurlitzer’s libretto presents him as near-insignificant.

Thankfully the work is much stronger, musically. Although Philip Glass’s music is not to everybody’s liking, there is no doubt that he is one of the most important composers of our time. In this case there is less focus on minimalism than usual. The score is pleasant, easy to listen to, and masterfully orchestrated. There are plenty outstanding passages which perfectly meets one’s expectations… certainly mine. For my money, it is one of Glass’ very best operas. That said, it is important to emphasize that the vocal writing in this opera is not interesting, demanding as it does only some quasi parlando recitatives that are more suitable for actors than opera singers.

Phelim McDermott’s production, finally, is excellent. There is only one stage, in the form of a raised platform. A few differentiating props denote the change of scenes, and good use is made of video projections. The direction of the actors is really good; the dialogue between Walt Disney and his Abraham Lincoln robot (“Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln”) at the end of Act I is one of the high points.

The musical direction was entrusted to Dennis Russell Davies, who gave a  wholly convincing interpretation. It can’t be easy to conduct this opera, but he did a very good job, keeping the tension and interest all the way through—which is quite a feat in a still-unknown opera by Philip Glass. The orchestra of the Teatro Real played along excellently and the performance from the chorus was top notch.

As I have already said, vocally there is little of interest in this opera. In this, there is a big difference with the other world premiere of recent months, Written on the Skin by George Benjamin, which I found much more interesting both dramatically and vocally.

Christopher Purves seems to have become a star of world premieres; he was also the protagonist in George Benjamin’s opera Written on the Skin (S&H review here). His interpretation of Walt Disney was dramatically convincing but, inevitably given my previous remarks, uninteresting vocally.

David Pittsinger was adequate as Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, while Janis Kelly made a serviceable Hazel George or Snow White—the nurse and supposed paramour of Disney. Among all the other vocal performance, only Donald Kaasch’s William Dantine was interesting and good enough to merit mention; the rest didn’t, at least, offend.

José Mª Irurzun