Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Opera Walt Disney, "The Perfect American"

                             John Easterlin as Andy Warhol in "The Perfect American."

                            Christopher Purves as Walt Disney in "The Perfect American."

From MADRID, Spain to LONDON in June:  Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel “The Perfect American” is a surreal, meditative, episodic account of the last days of Walt Disney.

Avoiding the long arm of the Disney Company’s lawyers by using only the most stylized versions of its subject’s famous images, the opera, a pleasure to listen to but dull as drama, had its premiere at the Teatro Real here last week. It has been one of the crowning events of the past year’s globe-trotting celebration of Mr. Glass’s 75th birthday. (He turned 76 on Thursday.)

Led by the Glass veteran Dennis Russell Davies with careful attention to both its underlying pulse and its twists of temperament, the opera opens with an ominous, low murmur punctuated by sharp, syncopated percussion snaps. The sound gradually expands through the orchestra and warms into something that, under Mr. Davies, has more gentle swing than the relentless forward motion generally associated with Mr. Glass.

The music often seems devised to trail off, to run out of steam as it expresses Disney’s struggle with the cancer from which he died in 1966 at 65. But there is nothing exhausted about its inventiveness.

His version of “The Perfect American” was commissioned during the adventurous impresario Gerard Mortier’s brief stint at the helm of New York City Opera. When Mr. Mortier’s hiring fell through in the fall of 2008, a year before his tenure was officially to begin, he decamped to the Teatro Real.

 “The Perfect American,” which has been directed by Phelim McDermott, who a few years ago with Julian Crouch created a vibrant version of Mr. Glass’s 1980 masterpiece, “Satyagraha,” that came to the Metropolitan Opera from the English National Opera in London. (“The Perfect American” travels to London in June.)

Mr. Jungk’s novel, originally published in German in 2001, is told from the perspective of Wilhelm Dantine, an Austrian-born Disney animator who, after being curtly fired, stalks his old boss through his final months.

Archetypal and specific, good and bad, Disney is, in other words, an ideal operatic character. But Mr. Jungk’s tight, strange novel has been transformed into a slack, mild pageant with an alluring soundtrack.

The prosy text takes us from Disney’s hometown, Marceline, Mo., to his Bel Air mansion to his hospital bed without ever coming together in a narrative, whether a traditional one or something in the abstract, ritualized mode that Mr. Glass has long favored.

Mr. McDermott and the designers Leo Warner and Joseph Pierce adroitly found their way around Disney’s copyright restrictions by settling on a look for the show’s projected animations that is more William Kentridge than Walt Disney.


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