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.
AKG-IMAGES/DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY
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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt