Walt Disney fighting with a malfunctioning robot of Abraham Lincoln -- what great fodder for a juicy operatic scene.
You wouldn’t guess that from watching Philip Glass’s “The Perfect American,” having its U.K. premiere at English National Opera. At the end of Act 1, robo-Lincoln and Walt tussle. The music chugs without excitement. The curtain comes down quietly.
It’s a robotic American president going crazy, for heaven’s sake. Shouldn’t there be a chorus screaming? Some brass playing comical raspberries? Some tension?
There should, and there isn’t.
It’s symptomatic of the problems in Glass’s 25th opera, which presents the imaginary memories of Disney as he lies dying in 1966. Even though Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto (based on a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk) is bitty, it does offer a few moments which cry out for big musical brush-strokes.
The malfunctioning Lincoln-bot provides one such scene. There’s another when megalomaniacal Walt insists he will never die, and forces his family and friends to salute the American flag and repeat the words “Never say die.”
It could be a chilling set piece. Glass simply repeats the same few familiar chord progressions, and studiously avoids emotional peaks and troughs. You’d find more variety in the monitor of a coma patient going beep-beep-beep.
The episodic narrative, in short choppy scenes, generates little tension. Walt recalls his apple-pie childhood in Missouri and a disgruntled employee whom he once fired.
He remembers an owl he killed as a boy. We learn that he’s a bit racist, quite reactionary, and resolutely against unions.
Since all the other characters are mere ciphers, his flaws are presented in monologue form. It doesn’t make for interesting drama or probing satire, and puts a strain on baritone Christopher Purves, who is on stage almost all the time.
He does an impressive job nevertheless, and makes Disney into a suave and charismatic presence on stage. The other singers perform well in their fleeting, underwritten roles.
Director Phelim McDermott, working with his Improbable theater company, centers the action around Disney’s hospital bed. He uses animated projections to create different locations.
A troupe of physical-theater actors perform choreographed ensemble sequences too. Sometimes they become a team of cowering animators who are presented as Nibelung-like slaves of the Disney Empire. Sometimes they carry singers on, or move props.
Some parts work better than others, even if as a whole the production feels as undramatic as the score.
It seems odd too that Mickey and Donald and Goofy make no appearance in Walt’s trips down memory lane. Surely they were an important part of his life?
“Everyone knows who they are, so we don’t need to show them,” the director says in a program note.
So it wasn’t simply that the copyright was too expensive then?
No matter. Mickey and Donald aren’t the only things missing in this far-from-perfect American opera. Rating: **.
“The Perfect American” is in repertory through June 28 at English National Opera, London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES. Information: http://www.eno.org, +44-20-7845-9300.
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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