The Perfect American
Kelly, McLaughlin; Kaasch, Purves, Pittsinger, James; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real, D. R. Davies. Production: McDermott. Opus Arte OA1117D (DVD) or OABD7129D (Blu-ray); 120 mins., subtitled
The operas of Philip Glass now number more than two dozen, but they are curiously underrepresented on DVD. The Perfect American, a meditation on the place of Walt Disney in popular culture, is the latest in a line of Glass operas revolving around historical figures, begun long ago with Einstein and Gandhi, continuing through Christopher Columbus and extending to Generals Grant and Lee. The libretto is by Rudy Wurlitzer, who worked not from a straight biography of Disney but from a novelized version of his life by Peter Stephan Jungk. Wurlitzer, whose name is underplayed on the packaging of this release, is particularly interested in the materials with which Disney created his own self-image — his childhood in Marceline, Missouri ("Everything that I've become has its roots in Marceline — peace, health, faith"), the 1941 strike by Disney's animators (he equates unions with communism) and a childhood incident in which he was attacked by an owl. (Disney loses his composure when a neighborhood girl in an owl costume crashes his sixty-fifth birthday party.) Comparisons are made with Moses, Mohammed and Buddha. When the dying Disney visits a sick child in an adjacent hospital room and the boy notes, "You're sort of like God," Disney doesn't exactly disagree.
The libretto walks a fine line, careful to leave room for musical interpretation and careful not to tip its hand about whether any of this is meant to be camp or not. When an Audio-Animatronic Lincoln figure (well played by the lank bass Zachary James) malfunctions, we first think that it may be comic. But a bemused Disney turns angry when Lincoln talks about the injustice of slavery, and he orders the power cut off. (The electric cords on the figure later turn into tubes of liquid nitrogen that cryogenically freeze Disney's body.) The production, under Phelim McDermott, walks the line too. A busy contingent of ten men and women, identically costumed in green eyeshades and push-broom moustaches like Disney animators, literally pulls the strings. The worshipful choral singers have a repertory of expansive arm gestures. The set designer, Dan Potra, and the video-projection designer, Leo Warner, have cleverly managed to provoke thoughts of Disney imagery without doing anything that might constitute copyright infringement. In the best moment, the palms of the white-gloved actors are revealed to have cartoon eyeballs on them; they "blink" when hands are closed. But it is curious that, as video projections have become so common in opera design, the ones here are so prosaic. If somebody sings about trains or flames, we get trains or flames.
Firmly on the entertainment side of the divide, Christopher Purves's Walt is a character who knows how he must play the public image of himself. He is a good foil for David Pittsinger's down-to-earth Roy Disney, his brother's handler and enabler. Janis Kelly does a wry turn as the dying Walt's nurse. ("Snow White," he calls her.) Donald Kaasch has the thankless role of Dantine, a disaffected animator who goes to Marceline, in Wurlitzer's unfortunate phrase, "to try to understand our myth of origin." Conductor Dennis Russell Davies, as ever, has the measure of Glass's music, which, as ever, is a poor match for straightforward dialogue scenes but effective in choral numbers. The musical interest here is more in the orchestration, with castanets and claves going crazy, and with a nice Americana trumpet solo. But the overall effect of the opera is that time would be better spent reading a good biography of Disney.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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