The last days of the American icon Walt Disney form a powerful and poignant subject for Philip Glass's latest opera, which was filmed at its first performances in Madrid in January 2013. Phelim McDermott's spectacular production is worthy of Disney's own visual imagination and its definitive influence on American culture. In the pit conductor Dennis Russell Davies, an experienced and authoritative champion of the composer's hypnotically beautiful music, gives wings to Rudy Wurlitzer's operatic transformation of Peter Stephan Jungk's novel, using both fact and fiction to peer into Disney's troubled psyche as illness forces him to confront his mortality.
I have not read the book, "The Perfect American", by Peter Stephan Jungk but I certainly intend to. On some level, and for musical reasons only, I intentionally did not first read the book that alleges that cultural icon Walt Disney was not just human, after all, but a deeply troubled one with a dark and irascible side. The opera certainly begins in attention getting fashion, with Walt in bed, unable to sleep, shouting out randomly while snippets of his sketches get projected onto the back wall. As the work progresses, the libretto, by Rudy Wurlitzer, does play up the supposed side of Disney as a megalomanic-visionary who sees what America should be (what he wants it to be) and does not go too much into the aspects of his personality that a main character, Dantine, found made Disney very difficult to work for. I have heard a great deal of the controversy surrounding this opera, mostly from talk radio and web-TV, declaring it a agenda-driven work designed to taint an American cultural icon and thereby devalue what Americans have traditionally stood for (blah-blah-blah) I won't say where most of this has come from but I will say that one talk show host admitted he had not read the book and called this piece "a musical." My point is only this: until I read the book I can't even develop an opinion on whether Walt Disney was as pure and well-intentioned as we want to believe or was he, actually, yet another psychologically flawed brilliant man with a genius level of vision. If so, he is in good company. So.... do, by all means, go see this opera by Philip Glass for it is truly one of his best works. The music is arresting and nervous at the beginning, dramatic and propulsive throughout and, frequently, beautiful. This is one of Glass's "grand operas" - in scale as well as quality. Musically, this is right up there with "Satyagraha" and "Akhnaten" and, in my opinion, "Appomattox" (especially in the realm of his bio-operas) As an essential "American" study, I place it alongside the woks of other pieces that explore the dark, human side of these icons and even the country itself (like Adams' "Nixon in China" for example) The performances are wonderful, especially Christopher Purves as Disney and Donald Kaasch as Dantine. The staging is stunning and frequently nightmarish. The Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Del Real de Madrid under long time Glass expert Dennis Russell Davies is brilliant as well. I strongly recommend this as well for being one of Philip Glass' best works. I will now go seek out the book; which may - or may not - change my childhood impression of Walt Disney or his art. No matter what author Jungk has to say, it will not change my opinion on this opera or its visual presentation. I just got back from an LA performance of Glass's breakthrough early masterpiece, "Einstein on the Beach" (which was stunning by the way) and I read a newspaper article in the Times questioning does the LA Opera (being where they are, I guess) "have the courage to (stage) 'The Perfect American'?" To which I say: much great art is inspired by or reflective of politics and cultural icons being extolled or revealed. Great music theater of any sort is just that; story aside. So..... why not? and please do!
Submitted on 11/12/13 by Dan Coombs