Part of the problem is that English National Opera has spoiled us for Philip Glass operas. The company’s production of Satyagraha in collaboration with the theatre group Improbable was so mesmerisingly inventive that anything else was always likely to come as a let-down (Satyagraha will be making a well-deserved return to ENO in the autumn).
It was an obvious move to bring the team back together for Glass’s new opera, The Perfect American. Given its premiere earlier this year in Madrid, the work is yet another American operatic biopic, adding Walt Disney to a roll-call of celebrities that includes Richard Nixon, Robert Oppenheimer, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Harvey Milk and others.
The title is ironic. Forget grinning mice, singing dwarves and flying nannies: the Walt Disney portrayed here is a desperate man dying of cancer, a self-obsessed, capitalist flag-bearer, who is anti-union and anti-women. The one thing we might expect from an opera about Disney of all people is a colourful cartoon portrait. What we get is a black-and-white thumbnail sketch, not very involving, not very human.
This makes for an unsatisfying evening. The root problem is Rudy Wurlitzer’s still-born libretto, based on a book by Peter Stephan Jungk, which has no narrative drive and labours every point. By contrast, Glass’s score finds the composer going down an imaginative new path, exploring new sounds, a new fluidity of movement, and even a dash here and there of Disneyesque sentimentality.
Enter Improbable, under director Phelim McDermott, to save the day. The production waves a magic wand over the opera, using cartoon images, projections and a large cast of extras to create exactly the world of fantasy that the opera never addresses. Christopher Purves is splendidly authoritative as Walt Disney and Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly and David Soar stand out in a good cast. Zachary James adds a brilliant cameo as an automaton Abraham Lincoln, whom Disney switches off once he starts spouting a message of racial equality – one of the few moments when the libretto hits its target. The criticism here is that Disney was no more than a “moderately successful CEO”, but at least he made sure his films always went out with a good script.