Coliseum, London

Classical review: The Perfect American - Are you a man or a mouse, Walt?

3.00

If only the latest opera from Philip Glass had a squeak of the wit, drama and character of the great animator's creations

Early on in Phelim McDermott's production of The Perfect American for ENO, there is a moment that encapsulates the tension in Philip Glass's latest opera. Lit by the flicker of a giant film projector and dressed in the uniform waistcoats and visors of old-style animation artists, the 10 actors of the Improbable Skills Ensemble hold up 10 identical drawings of three perfect circles, one large, two small. It is up to the audience to reimagine those circles – to turn the large one into a face and the small ones into ears, and make the vital connection to the trademark-protected cartoon rodent first seen on screen in 1928. As Walt Disney later said, "It was all started by a mouse."

While McDermott, his actors, designers Dan Potra and Jon Clark, and the video artists of 59 Productions dance nimbly around the legal issues, alluding to the earliest Disney cartoons without infringing copyright, it is up to bass-baritone Christopher Purves to animate the character of Walt from Rudy Wurlitzer's decaffeinated libretto and Glass's matter- of-fact vocal lines. The Perfect American opens in 1966 in St Joseph's Hospital, Burbank, California, where Disney lies dying of lung cancer. A magnetic performer with a handsome, muscular voice, Purves wrestles with a scrim-thin sketch of a man described as "all folklore, apple pie and popcorn".

In the opera, it is all started by an owl: Rosy Lomas's bird-headed shaman, Lucy, who serves to remind Walt of an unpleasant incident in his past. Dialogues with Walt's nurse (Janis Kelly), his wife and daughters (Pamela Helen Stephen, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret), and his brother Roy (David Soar), add further information. Through them we learn that young Walt stomped an owl to death in terror; that old Walt is anti-Union and anti-civil rights; that he fetishises his childhood home in Missouri; that he converted Ronald Reagan from Democrat to Republican; that he was capable of cruelty and tenderness; that he was not cryo-preserved but cremated. Still, Disney remains, like Mickey Mouse, two-dimensional.

The Act I finale, in which Walt rebukes an animatronic Abraham Lincoln (Zachary James) for the abolition of slavery, is ghoulishly amusing but heavy-handed. Andy Warhol (John Easterlin) has a tastelessly directed mince-on part to remind us that Walt's vision of America as the "birthplace of wonder and innocence" was already outmoded in 1966. Only Dantine (Donald Kaasch), a fictional animator fired for organising a union, is allowed to develop, passing from rage to regret.

The chorus regurgitates babytalk – "Quack-quack! Woof-woof! Choo-choo!" – while fairground orchestral arpeggios circle prettily under the baton of Gareth Jones, enlived by Latin percussion. Shorter than Glass's Satyagraha and more varied in instrumentation, The Perfect American still feels long. The irony is that in terms of character development, dramatic impetus, musical colour, pathos and wit, Dumbo and Pinocchio have more to offer.

Written for a student production, Eugene Onegin (Grange Park, Hampshire ***) is stubbornly difficult to cast. Too mature and sophisticated in their bearing for the first five of Tchaikovsky's seven lyric scenes, Susan Gritton's Tatyana and Brett Polegato's Onegin come vividly to life in St Petersburg, the shame of their youthful encounter in the country now as hot and sweet as the jam that silly, flirty Olga (Frances Bourne) dropped into the mouths of the peasant boys a liftime earlier. Bourne is the perfect age for Olga but Robert Anthony Gardiner still needs to grow into the role of Lensky. Clive Bayley's authoritative Gremin is a highlight in Stephen Medcalf's cautious Grange Park production. Designer Francis O'Connor's ornate spiral staircase and gallery dominate the stage, cramping the dances – an effect compounded by Martyn Brabbins's athletic tempi. Now that artistic director Wasfi Kani has lured the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra into Grange Park's tiny pit, perhaps she can seduce its chief conductor, Kirill Karabits too.

A world away from Tsarist Russia, Opera Holland Park launched its season with a slug of red wine and a triple homicide. Stephen Barlow's artfully linked double bill of Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana (****) (set here in 1944) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (updated to 1974), hinges on the volatile dynamic between Peter Auty and Stephen Gadd, both electric. Auty sings Mascagni's zipless Turiddu and Leoncavallo's vengeful Canio, while Gadd slips elegantly from the role of cuckolded Alfio in the first opera to the Iago-like Tonio in the second. Yannis Thavoris's sets offer two walls of orange crates, with appropriate period accessories. Though Mascagni was the innovator and Leoncavallo the imitator, Pagliacci is the stronger show. Julia Sporsen's alley cat Nedda matches Auty and Gadd in intensity. In Cavalleria, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers's Santuzza is too passive and Sarah Pring's Mamma Lucia becomes the dominant female. Conductor Stuart Stratford moulds and propels both scores magnificently, and special honours go to the four cellists of the City of London Sinfonia for the verismo sob in their sound.

'The Perfect American', to 28 June; 'Cavalleria rusticana'/'Pagliacci', to 28 June; 'Eugene Onegin', to 11 July

Critic's Choice

Thomas Zehetmair and Northern Sinfonia conclude their double-cycle of Schumann and Brahms symphonies at The Sage, Gateshead (tomorrow/Sunday). Theatre of the Ayre and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain celebrate the music of the 17th-century lutenist Robert Johnson and his blues guitarist namesake in The Devil at the Crossroads, at the Spitalfields Festival, London (Mon). Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest opens at the Linbury Studio, London (Fri).

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor