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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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.