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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>

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

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.