The not-so-wonderful world of Walt Disney

Christopher Purves as Walt Disney

The title of Philip Glass’s new opera on the life of Walt Disney, The Perfect American, is drenched in irony.

The portrait of the entertainment mogul presented by Glass and his librettist Rudy Wurlitzer, based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel, is an unremittingly sour one. Disney is portrayed as racist, despotic and megalomaniacal. He is unable to process his phenomenal success because he knows the battle between man and empire can only ever have one winner. He creates one of the world’s biggest brands and best-loved cinema characters, but, correctly, fears both will outlive him. This is a harsh depiction, lacking in sympathy, or even pathos.

The brand, at least, continues to look after him, reportedly declining permission for Mickey Mouse and his pals to be used as bit players in the production, which received its world premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real on Tuesday. (It would frankly be a surprise if a request was actually made.) The production has a troubled history, commissioned by New York City Opera in 2008 but dropped after Gerard Mortier, its prospective general manager, quit before he started and became artistic director at the Teatro Real instead.

It made for a curious couple of hours, full of energy and visual invention but infuriatingly devoid of psychological insight. That is not Glass’s way: he prefers to tell his story episodically and opaquely, in vivid tableaux that gradually build a picture. But the picture, in this case, too often lapses into caricature, rarely hinting at the complexity of its subject.

There are standout moments: a passage when Disney duets with an animatronic Abraham Lincoln, who splutters into malfunction as he tries to put the case for liberal values, is entangled in thorny political questions. And an appearance by a purple-clad Andy Warhol at the beginning of the second act makes improbable parallels between the artist and the animator, both “never criticising America, [never showing] ugliness in [their] work”.

But it is hard to avoid feeling that this is an opera about ideas of a perfect America rather than the idealism of a so-called perfect American. Disney constantly harks back to the country of his youth: a land of wholesome outdoor values, the railroad, of “peace, health, faith”. That he ends his life bedevilled by strife, cancer and treachery is simply to tell the story of the two Americas of the 20th century, the first driven by hope, the second resigned to disillusionment.

Glass’s score, among his most accessible, is best when describing the optimism of Disney’s creative frontier spirit, swelling with colour and vivacity, only to undercut proceedings with sudden shifts into troubled minor keys. Phelim McDermott’s direction and Dan Potra’s set are also full of savvy ironic counterpoints: the innocent children playing in a pool with inflatable rings have a Koonsian kitsch about them, while the ragged star-spangled banner that unfurls amid a patriotic burst from the crowd is pure Jasper Johns.

There are technically clever revolving projections that echo the confusion in the dying Disney’s mind between dreams and reality, and the use of the Improbable Skills Ensemble brings puppetry and mime to the occasionally cluttered stage, mostly to good effect. The absence of any of Disney’s characters is without doubt an advantage, although Mickey Mouse’s visual imprint – a large circle topped by two smaller ones – slips none-too-subtly into the action at key moments.

The singing is uniformly impressive, with Christopher Purves in the title role fighting a game battle to describe a narrative arc in his character. We almost, but not quite, feel for Disney as he floods a potentially poignant deathbed scene with further egocentric pronouncements. In truth, ultimate judgment has already been delivered on him in an earlier scene, when his nemesis Dantine, a lowly worker in the factory of dreams, accuses: “All you are is a moderately successful CEO. Nothing more than that.”

That palpably wrong remark makes us falter. Disney clearly possessed some kind of genius but The Perfect American keeps us frustratingly distant from that area of inquiry. Disney inhabited a unique space in American culture that was as far from mediocrity as it was from perfection. His demise here is ridiculous, as he rambles about cryogenic survival almost as the flames of his cremation are being stoked. The back projection goes all Don Giovanni, and we are left with the nagging feeling he deserved a more nuanced treatment than that.

‘The Perfect American’, a co-production between English National Opera and the Teatro Real, Madrid, opens at ENO on June 1

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.