Philip Glass - The Perfect American
Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013
Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
It's not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass's new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. Disney's animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, small-town country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress, race equality or union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn't a nice guy. Why make an opera about him?
Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of "the perfect American", even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance in the USA, but there's little evidence of that here. It doesn't help that Rudy Wurlitzer's libretto is filled with repetitive, expositional and declamatory dialogue that attempts to find significance in banalities. Walt's vision for America is determined by his own small-town upbringing ("Everything that I've become has its roots in Marceline"), and that vision is defined as little more than "a magical place where dreams and miracles come true". Elsewhere, Walt's nature and achievements are summed up in snappy mottos ("Never say die!"), common clichés (Disney and his creations being "more famous than Santa" and "more recognisable than Jesus") and dull observations ("That's what he does, spares everyone the worst").
There is some attempt to find a less literal approach in the consideration of notions of immortality, but the observations are similarly trite. Walt expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cyrogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will "live forever". A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a reanimated robot of Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values. The latter sequences at least allow director Phelim McDermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging which, even without having recourse any actual representations of Disney characters, is impressive and colourful throughout.
The cast and performances are also exceptionally good. Despite the deficiencies of the libretto, Christopher Purves and the rest of the cast (in particular Zachary James as Abe Lincoln and Rosie Lomas as Lucy/Josh) manage to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into the singing. The musical score however is mostly lifeless orchestration of bland repetition, deadened even further by an inordinate amount of tapping percussion. It lacks any real dynamic or variety in tempo and has no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It's a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in his early Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten portrait operas, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American just don't seem to fire the composer's imagination this time.
On Blu-ray and in High Definition, the recording of the opera during its world premiere run in the Teatro Real in Madrid at least looks terrific. The staging is impressive and it's well filmed, the HD image capturing the wonderful colour and lighting of the production. The audio tracks also give a clear presentation of the music and the singing both in the stereo (LPCM 2.0) and surround options (DTS HD Master Audio 5.1). Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the BD, but there is an essay and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.