The Perfect American – English National Opera
Christopher Purves stars in an interesting – if imperfect – portrayal of Walt Disney
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In one of the most memorable sequences in Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, a simple sketch of three circles projected onto a screen morphs from the iconic outline of Mickey Mouse to the cluster of cancer cells that are killing Walt Disney.
An apt image in an opera - co-commissioned by ENO and the Teatro Real, Madrid – which attempts to peel back the layers of myth to find the real Walt, imagined here as a man obsessed by his legacy and constantly worried that his name is no longer his own: Walt Disney the man is being subsumed by Walt Disney the corporation.
The opera takes place during the last few months of the filmmaker’s life and is based on a semi-fictional novel by Peter Stephan Jungk in which a disgruntled ex-employee of the Disney company (played touchingly here by tenor Donald Kaasch) seeks out the head man to try and get recognition for his work – something the Disney employees essentially signed away on their contract.
Bass-baritone Christopher Purves sings the title role and creates a naïve, mean-spirited character, who boasts that his creations are better known than Christ and Moses.
Purves creates a character who is equal parts heartless capitalist and obsessive egotist, and his is undoubtedly the stand-out performance. Still, there are strong performances from Janis Kelly as his nurse, David Soar as his brother Roy and Pamela Helen Stephen as his wife.
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith. ENO The Perfect American; Christopher Purves, Rosie Lomas
But the real star is the staging itself, which is masterfully directed by Phelim McDermott who brings with him the creative corps of Improbable Theatre Company. The central element of the staging is that everything – from Walt’s model railway to the hospital ward where he dies – is created through massive line drawings projected onto thin white sheets. Images flicker, recalling the cartoon animation through which Disney made his name.
A highlight is a scene-stealing appearance from bass Zachary James as an animatronic Abraham Lincoln. This robot engages Walt in a debate about race while a crew of Improbable dancers appear to operate the puppet of the famous president.
So much for the highlights.
The music was enjoyable enough, though it felt disconnected from the action and emotions we could see being played out on stage, and probably the less said about the libretto the better. If you were feeling generous you might say its blandlessness was a comment on Disney’s appe-pie-and-popcorn utopian vision.
Overall, Improbable’s imaginative staging is the most memorable aspect of this production, which skirts around Disney without ever really getting to the real man. Surely there are more interesting things say about one of the defining personalities of the 20th century.