Reviewed: The Perfect American and Eugene Onegin

Alexandra Coghlan assesses the English National Opera's production of <em>The Perfect American</em> and Grange Park Opera's <em>Eugene Onegin.</em>

The Perfect American; Eugene Onegin
English National Opera; Grange Park Opera

When you’re telling the story of one of the great storytellers of the Twentieth Century there’s a certain responsibility to do it well. Any other composer might have felt stimulated, pressured even by this challenge, but not Philip Glass, whose new opera about the death (and life) of Walt Disney has all the narrative energy of a telesales operative on a Friday afternoon. Glass dissolves his bitter little tale of genius unmasked into the familiar one-size-fits-all minimalism he has been peddling for decades, seemingly untroubled that the same techniques used to create meditative stasis and transcendence in Satyagraha are here supposed to suggest restless energy and worldly activity.

It doesn’t help that this debut production of Glass’s opera (first seen in Madrid and now making its UK premiere a English National Opera) once again sees the composer in collaboration with Phelim McDermott and Improbable, the company that brought us Satyagraha’s over-sized papier-mâché creatures and cityscapes. It all looks familiar, and if there’s undeniable skill in McDermott’s revolving film projector and flurrying dancers, there’s also a sense that we’re being distracted from the void where the emotional core of the opera should be.

There’s perhaps a certain creative irony in giving Disney the signature Disney treatment, stripping him of inner life and individuality, dissolving him into the larger fabric of Glass’s shades-of-pastel musical world, but it’s not enough to sustain interest in this sprawling operatic fantasy. There’s also the uncomfortable tension between the opera’s source book (Peter Stephan Jungk’s The Perfect American, a fictional re-imagining of Disney’s dark and conflicted life, and the broadly affirmative tone of Glass’s work. Yes we are given a neat little parable about exploited and abandoned former employee Dantine (a touching Donald Kaasch) and some ominous symbolic business with a crow, but the dramatic weight and musical excitement is all with the Disney fantasy, not the reality.

The highlights are ecstatic choirs-of-angels choruses in which we’re transported back to Disney’s utopian home-town of Marceline Missouri (filled with “peace, health, faith, folklore and apple pie”). The ENO chorus are on fine form, and Glass’s high-lying sopranos gild these other-worldly moments with colours that do feel new to the minimalist palette. There are some nice orchestral touches too, with hollow, denatured textures from percussion finding a signature sound for the mechanistic Disney manufacturing process.

Unfortunately it’s a rare consolation among so much banality. Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto is an active hindrance, sitting awkwardly somewhere between stylized symbolism and naturalism and exposing Glass’s far-from-organic way with word-setting. There’s some strong work from Christopher Purves as Walt himself, and excellent cameos from Zachary James as an animatronic Abraham Lincoln (don’t ask) and Rosie Lomas as small boy Josh, but set adrift in Glass’s non-chronological haze of memory fragments, the cast struggle to make us care.

In complete contrast to this multimedia, if-we-throw-enough-tricks-at-them-they-might-not-notice-it’s-opera, is Grange Park’s new Eugene Onegin. Utterly traditional, uncomplicatedly faithful (closing twist aside), this isn’t just opera for purists, it’s opera that makes or needs no apologies for itself.

We’re all familiar with the famous quotation that defines opera as a man getting stabbed in the back “and instead of dying, he sings”. In the best operas and the best productions this outpouring of song feels like the most inevitable, most natural thing. And so it is here. With the aid of some beautiful designs from Francis O’Connor, director Stephen Medcalf invites us into the carefully stratified society of Nineteenth-Century Russia.

Colourful peasants dance and jostle below while above the passions of their superiors play out with muted urgency. The monochrome uniformity of the second ball-scene suggests the social straitjacket against which both the passionate Tatyana (Susan Gritton) and Onegin himself (Brett Polegato) struggle, its formality finally acknowledging all the restrictions and rules denied in the pretty rural idyll of the opening.

Gritton makes a late role debut here, and if Grange Park’s small theatre doesn’t help her wind back the years as the youthful Tatyana, she makes an appealing vocal job of Tchaikovsky’s heroine. Polegato’s is an unusually personable Onegin, softer and more reasonable in his initial rejection, which in turn yields a more tender encounter later, in which we momentarily doubt Tatyana’s resolve to remain faithful to her husband. Clive Bayley relishes the cameo role of Gremin, tugging remorselessly at the heartstrings in his aria, and Francis Bourne’s Olga is a rare fusion of captivating energy and excellent singing.

Only a weak Lensky from Robert Anthony Gardiner and the opera’s closing moments (in which Medcalf imagines the Prince bringing the action full-cycle as he picks up his pistol to challenge Onegin) blot what looks certain to be one of the highlights of this season’s country house operas.

 

Christopher Purves as Walt Disney in The Perfect American.
Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.