Mini-review – The Perfect American – English National Opera

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For me, the combination of the words “Phillip Glass” and “new opera” are pretty irresistible – which is remarkable if you consider how little I like opera. But his operas are, to me, perfect for the 21st century: very cerebral and extremely engaged with the high-culture zeitgeist. You might find this hard to believe about an opera with Walt Disney as its subject matter; but I think it’s just as applicable as it is for Einstein and Ghandi. Iconic figures with deep cultural impacts? You know that it’s true for all three of them. With Disney, you get an added layer of the image versus the reality – probably as true for Ghandi but manipulated in a more self-serving way for Walt. This production also dovetailed nicely for me with seeing Mike Daisey’s American Utopias in May; it explored the reality behind a lot of Disney mythology, as well as showing where Walt aimed higher than his successors were able to achieve. I felt convinced there was more than enough material to make an opera.

The story, though, winds up seeming a bit thin: it’s about Walt’s worries during his last few months of life. He sees himself as leaving a great legacy, as proven by his fame; but (as the opera shows) a lot of his achievements were based on editing out the past – both his crushing of the rights of his workers and his elimination of voices that spoke against his vision of what America was (nicely epitomized by the scene in which Walt lectures the animatronic Lincoln – from the Disneyland attraction – about how America was reduced as a nation if blacks are equal to whites – which it appears Walt had edited out of the speech Lincoln gave at his amusement park!). Walt cherishes the past he remembers growing up in Marceline, Missouri – but the abuse he and his brothers suffered (as revealed in the Daisey piece) is left out of the opera. Instead, we see his worried about getting his body frozen after his death, and his huge egotism … which really never falls like it would if The Perfect American had been plotted more like a Greek tragedy. Ah well.

Instead of rich story telling and immortal characters, what we get is a breadth of imagination in the presentation of this opera that I found so fully engaging it merits it the label “gesamtkunstwerk” – a full spectacle for the eye as well as being musically rich (in that Philip Glass way that I enjoy). While normally I hate animated backdrops on stage – too often they’re a choice made for cheapness, and/or they distract from what we should be focusing on, the performers – but in this show they are both incredibly appropriate and (shock!) gorgeous, in part because they are frequently shown on hanging cloth (which allows for additional dramatic manipulation of the images). There’s almost no animation related directly to the Disney ouvre, other than the melancholy three circles standing for the basic Mickey Mouse – instead, it shows the thoughts in Walt’s head or otherwise illustrates additively what is happening on stage. That said, the design isn’t overly reliant on the moving image – instead, there is also amazing use of subtle costumes (such as eyes drawn on hands that allow people to look cartoony – and blink), which allows us, the audience, to expand our imaginations and see birds, deer, squirrels, and monsters on the stage. I was entranced: everything was one hundred percent technically up to date and yet still adhered to the dictum of trusting us to make the leap rather than having everything spelled out for us.

While this show was not perfect, it was an excellent piece of theater and highly enjoyable. If you don’t like Phillip Glass, there probably won’t be enough to get you over the hump; but for me, it was as good as opera gets, and a wonderful opportunity to see a show that is really and truly fresh in a genre that is so frequently dominated by 19th century war horses illustrated with dusty realism. I’ll take Princess Mononoke versus Angry Birthday Walt any day, and so should you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2013. It continues at the London Coliseum through June 28th.)

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