COMPOSERS: Philip Glass
ALBUM TITLE: The Perfect American
WORKS: The Perfect American
PERFORMER: 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; Orchestra & Choir of Teatro Real Madrid; The Improbable Skills Ensemble/Dennis Russell Davies
CATALOGUE NO: OA 1117 D
In Peter Stephan Jungk’s fictionalised story of Walt Disney’s last months, cartoon colours and fairy-tale endings fall away to expose the grim realities faced by a man with cancer and a corporation in decline. Jungk expands on the rumour, circulated after Disney’s death in 1966, that the business magnate wanted to be immortal (like Mickey Mouse)and requested he be cryogenically preserved. That rumour is false; but it’s this tension – between the Disney of Snow White stardust, and he of deeper, darker truths – that seems ripe for the operatic stage.
Phelim McDermott’s slick production, recorded here at its world premiere this year at the Teatro Real, Madrid, however, is an altogether dark affair. From Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto we learn that Disney is little more than a bigoted businessman who treated and paid his staff poorly, while he himself was unable to draw (also untrue). There are moments when Uncle Walt shows a sunnier side, such as in the opening scenes, where he and his brother, Roy, nostalgically recall their childhood spent on a farm in Missouri, but Walt’s character – the negative of an icon – never seems fully realised.
Christopher Purves fully engages with the lead role, injecting energy into a score that (perhaps unusually for a style based on such propulsive repetition) often lacks momentum. Glass has tweaked his familiar arpeggios to incorporate nods to Gershwin and Copland; stage appearances from Andy Warhol
(a Walt admirer) and a robotic Abraham Lincoln, too, remind us that the magic of Disney is a homegrown fantasy. The staging is visually strong – sketches are projected on to screens, providing an alternative to the drawings Disney would not have allowed – and the filming is well choreographed, but overall this opera is hard to get animated about.