"The Perfect American," the new opera by Philip Glass that explores the final days in the life of Walt Disney, has been one of the most talked-about operas in recent years.
The piece debuted in January at the Teatro Real in Madrid and was also broadcast online. This week, "The Perfect American" opened in London at the English National Opera in the same staging by Phelim McDermott.
Adapted from the novel by Peter Stephan Jungk, the English-language opera is set mostly in Southern California and depicts Disney near death, his mind traveling through time. As in Madrid, baritone Christopher Purves plays Disney, who is visited throughout the course of the story by his wife, Lillian; his brother, Roy, and strangely by Andy Warhol and Abraham Lincoln.
The Walt Disney Co. has reportedly not given permission for the opera to use any of its images, so McDermott has come up with a creative mix of digitial video projections and other workarounds.
The director previously staged Glass' "Satyagraha," based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, to great acclaim at ENO and later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. "The Perfect American" is scheduled to run at London's Coliseum through June 28.
In his review of the Madrid production, Times music critic Mark Swed called it "a great American opera that needs to be seen in L.A. And it is also the only great L.A. opera."
The British critics have a significantly more negative verdict. Andrew Clements of The Guardian wrote that while Glass' music is "as finely crafted as ever, its main function is simply to support the narrative in a neutral way, never taking the dramatic initiative or threatening to supply what is so obviously lacking in the work's dramaturgy."
The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen wasn't impressed either, calling it "far from the worst of [Glass'] efforts... is this the future of opera? I do hope not."
Richard Fairman wrote in The Financial Times that the root of the opera's problem is the libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer, which "has no narrative drive and labours every point. By contrast, Glass’s score finds the composer going down an imaginative new path, exploring new sounds, a new fluidity of movement, and even a dash here and there of Disneyesque sentimentality."
The Independent's Michael Church described "The Perfect American" as "less an opera than a failed attempt at Citizen Kane, and there’s a vast emptiness at its heart."
Here's a video excerpt from "The Perfect American" taken during its premiere in Madrid.