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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried