Friday 7 June 2013

The Perfect American - ENO @ The Coliseum

For many children, Disney is their first experience of cinema.  Prepare to be disillusioned.

Just as Disney experimented with classical music in Fantasia, The Perfect American is an opera experimenting with Disney.  Adapted from Peter Stephan Jungk’s fictional novel of the same name, this opera (with libretto from Rudy Wurlitzer and music from Philip Glass) seeks to uncover the real man behind the cartoon façade.  “Every artist has a dark side”, explains director Phelim McDermott in the programme, with his production painting a darker picture of our childhood hero in a Lynchian metaphor for the American dream.  Disney, on his deathbed, desperately seeks immortality: “At least Mickey and Donald are immortal”, he laments.  The production takes place as an extended nightmare: skeletal rabbits hop across the stage with larger than life animalistic choreography; white gloved hands suggest the pull of encroaching death; clever use of animations and projections depict cartoon characters tormenting the protagonist’s mind; and all accompanied by the constant ghostly flicker of film.  With the corporation prohibiting use of actual imagery, the cartoon visuals are merely an insinuation.  This is not the Disney you know and love.

The central conceit of The Perfect American questions the true meaning of being an artist, when cartoons are such a collaborative medium.  Disney is depicted as a megalomaniac perfectionist who takes sole credit for the work of his disgruntled workers.  His nemesis (as such) is Dantine, a former employee who balks “All you are is a moderately successful CEO”.  This is offset by a production that seeks to idolise and eulogise Disney in overblown, indeed operatic, fashion.  The opening image is that of Disney being raised on his deathbed that’s startlingly similar to Jesus on a crucifix; later he claims “I’ll become a Messiah”.  The chorus, meanwhile, swings from singing “Disney is a magician” in a manner similar to the animated films of old (Sleeping Beauty in particular), to absurdly singing “quack quack” and “choo choo” alongside the projected animations.  At the centre of the opera is a scene in which Disney has a conversation with a wonderfully choreographed broken animatronic of Abraham Lincoln.  Not only is this the most melodramatic scene of the piece (the parallels to Don Giovanni are obvious), but the comparison to Lincoln borders on ludicrous – can a cartoonist really be compared to an American president who freed the slaves?

The main issue with The Perfect American is its distinct lack of drama – both in the narrative and the music.  This is a character piece in which the only compelling character is Disney himself, in an animated performance from Christopher Purves whose beautiful baritone shines through in the rare moments of lyricsm.  Only a cartoonish and eccentric depiction of Andy Warhol (John Easterlin) provides light-relief.  It’s fitting that the action moves in slow-motion alongside Glass’s minimalist score – sometimes literally.  Gareth Jones’s conducting is unable to prevent the score from flatlining, with little dynamic range or energy.  Word-setting is clunky and lyricism is almost non-existent, whilst the orchestration lacks colourful excitement – a crime considering the term ‘mickey-mousing’ derives from the use of music in Disney’s cartoons.  It’s clear that Glass’s musical style does not lend itself to dramatic composition.

Rather than questioning the artistry of Disney, the real question is whether he deserves to have an opera written about him at all.  We see little of his Disneyland empire and the extent of his drawing is three circles on a page (Mickey Mouse if you were wondering).  The title may be ironic, but what exactly made Disney such a great man?  The Perfect American does not provide a convincing argument.  People the world over love him for his work, not for his personal life.  Sadly this production contains none of the magical sparkle or storytelling he is reknowned for.


Watch: The Perfect American runs until 28th June.