Opera review: The Perfect American, Coliseum, London

2.00

This is less an opera than a failed attempt at Citizen Kane

Like one of those long-distance locomotives that its chorus incessantly sings about, Philip Glass’s new opera has been noisily puffing its way towards us ever since its Madrid premiere in January.

Echoing the fictionalised biography of Walt Disney by Peter Stephan Jungk on which it is based, The Perfect American is predicated on the fact that its protagonist is anything but: a pathologically insecure country boy with conservative, misogynistic, and racist views; a man devoid of artistic talent who ruthlessly exploited the talents of his employees.

But as Glass has been telling anyone who will listen, this work is not designed to rubbish its subject because the huge slog of creating an opera can’t be wasted on a hatchet-job. For him ‘opera is poetry’, and this one, he says, is about mortality and eternity. Moreover, rather than condemning Disney as the man who industrialised childhood, he presents him as the man who bridged high art and populist entertainment. Bringing in as director Phelim McDermott, whose Improbable Theatre Company made Glass’s Gandhi-epic Satyagraha the unforgettable experience it was, Glass and his librettist Rudy Wurlitzer aim to present a more nuanced picture than Jungk’s.

The curtain rises on Disney dying from lung cancer in his hospital bed, and it falls on his cremation. What happens in between is less a series of flash-backs than a series of debates about identity and artistic ownership, tricked out with enormous visual flair. The squared-paper backdrop suggests both a medical chart and a cartoonist’s storyboard, while a huge rotating camera gantry lowers gauze curtains onto which animated sketches are projected; the flickering virtuosity of the designs (by Dan Potra plus a brilliant team) is complemented by the inventiveness of Ben Wright’s choreography in which a team of animators mutate into the animals they are drawing. We move between the hospital, Disney’s office and home, and Disney’s home town of Marceline whose remembered apple-pie ‘magic’ is the mainspring of his creation.

There are just two problems: the libretto and the music, against both of which a superb cast - with Christopher Purves’s larger-than-life Disney leading a gloriously authentic Fifties crowd - struggle heroically. Wurlitzer’s cloth-eared dialogue could have been written by a computer, while the characteristic repetitions and soulful riffs of Glass’s score blandly disregard anything so vulgar as character or situation. Disney sings that his ‘jugular feels like an icicle’ in a tone of comfortably full-throated warmth; the recurring motif of the owl which the boy Disney killed and which haunts the adult Disney is in no way reflected in the music; the ideological debate between Disney and his disaffected employee Dantine (excellent Donald Kaasch) is verbally and musically pallid in the extreme. There are two separate moments of vividness as first Zachary James’s robot Lincoln then John Easterlin’s mincing Warhol light up the stage, but since neither composer nor librettist know how to capitalise on them dramatically, they are quickly forgotten. This is less an opera than a failed attempt at Citizen Kane, and there’s a vast emptiness at its heart.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project