02 Jun 2013
Philip Glass: The Perfect American
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
This is not classic Glass, but some plastic imitation. Walt Disney's life would make fantastic drama. Phelim McDermott and Improbable give us wonderful visual images. But Glass and his librettist Rudy Wurlitzer seem to have lost the plot. The Perfect American should have been a silent movie.
As Disney discovered, cartoon characters come alive when they tell a good story. Cartoons are static images, thousands of frames meticulously drawn by hand. They only come alive when a machine runs them in sequence. Movement is illusion. Glass's music can work as drama. His whirring repetitions suggest the mechanical processes used in film. We can "hear" whirring of the camera, and imagine the way individual cells of film are transformed when the projector rolls. Glass makes the connection between cartoons and trains. Both run on tracks, both are inanimates transformed by machine. Thousands of illustrators worked on Disney's films but their work only became art when he processed it. In theory, Philip Glass could have made good music to fit the subject. But even by his own standards, The Perfect American feels like a tired re-run.
There's nothing wrong with repetition per se, but here it's an excuse to pad out a marginal story line. The Perfect American might work as drama if it were cut down to, say, 60 minutes, distilling it down to the essentials. Glass's In the Penal Colony was powerful because it was so tightly written. You felt like you were inside the infernal machine operated by a demonic entity. It even works as pure music, though the Music Theatre Wales staging was superb. (Read review here and here). This is minimalism free of danger or meaning. It's quite pleasant in its own way, an ideal alternative to sleeping pills or a shot of whisky before bed. But Glass needs focus to concentrate his mind from wandering. Listening to The Perfect American without visuals would, I think, be torture.
The Disney Corporation refused to allow the use of Disney images in the production, but Phelim McDermott gets round this by showing the camera. Its round reels look like Mickey's ears. The projection shaft looks like a mouth.. Just as Disney anthromorphized animals, McDermott turns machine into Mouse. Improbable's group sequences are always notable. The chorus moves like a single organism made from many parts. The chorus helps the figure of Abraham Lincoln move, like a puppet on strings. The political allusions are valid, but curiously undeveloped. The libretto flits from idea to idea without depth or perception.
If Glass were to save The Perfect American as drama, he's be wise to stick to a few strong images and ditch the less relevant. Lincoln (extremely well realized by Zachary James) is worth keeping because McDermott shows him so well, but Disney and Ronald Reagan are innocent indeed compared with the machinations of modern politics. Andy Warhol (John Easterlin) is a character worth saving because Warhol and Disney had so much in common. If Glass's focus is on Disney as visionary artist, there's a lot of potential. But the libretto is fatally diffuse.
Christopher Purves sings Walt and David Soar sings Roy Disney. Good performances but the script lets them down. Both singers have enough musical nous to sing their lines so they flow better than what's in the subtitles. Sometimes, Glass's problems with text work out fine because they emphasize meaning. Mechanical expression squashes human speech. In The Perfect American, the text is just plain dumb. These roles are central. Both Disney brothers were visionaries in their own ways. Whether you like multinational corporations or not, they helped create the genre. Perhaps Glass and his librettist were inhibited by fear of litigation. But the Disneys were remarkable people: the Disney Corporation has nothing to fear. Especially not from a work as inept as this. There is one spark of perception in the text. The Disneys are "hiding behind a mouse and a duck". But that's all. Then the moment is gone.
Soar is an interesting singer, much admired since his early days at WNO. Hopefully we'll hear more of him at the ENO. Donald Kaasch sings William Dantine, the employee fired for organizing a union. As "evidence" that Disney mistreated his employees, it's pretty weak, since far worse things happened and happen still. The Lucy/Josh character (Rosie Lomas) is bizarre. If Lucy is an apparition based on the ghost of an owl Disney killed as a child, there's potential in that too, but the role is so badly drawn (by the librettist, not the singer) that it's a waste of time. We don't really need to know so much about how Disney loved nature. But as my friend exclaimed. "Disney wasn't Janáček!".
An opera that would have been better as silent film? The irony would not have been lost on Walt and Roy. It doesn't matter how you tell a story as long as you have a story to tell in the first place.
For production details see the ENO site.