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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Image
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Under lock and key: inside the fairytale world of Helen Oyeyemi

Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster.

Gepetta walks into a classroom in “is your blood as red as this? (yes)”, a story at the heart of Helen Oyeyemi’s first collection of tales. And, yes, her name looks familiar: a feminised slant on the creator of Pinocchio in Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century novel. Sure enough, the subject of the class is the history of puppetry; Gepetta is struck by the presence of Rowan Wayland, already settled in the room. There is an “ocean of space” around him; he seems to be either a pariah or a celebrity, maybe both. Gepetta can’t take her eyes off him. “Rowan’s physical effect – godlike jawline, long-lashed eyes, umber skin, rakish quiff of hair – is that of a lightning strike.” An inhuman beauty, one might say, and with good reason, for it becomes apparent that Rowan is a puppet, too, “masterless and entirely alive”.

It is a mark of Oyeyemi’s confidence that she masters such shifts so adeptly – but at the age of just 31 she is an experienced writer. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl, was written while she was still at school; she has since published four more, all of them built from a love of language and a fascination with fairy tales and mythology which have earned her comparisons with Angela Carter – and there are moments in this collection, certainly, which recall The Bloody Chamber. On the surface, Oyeyemi’s “dornička and the st martin’s day goose” looks like a riff on “Red Riding Hood”, an answer to Carter’s “Company of Wolves”, when Dornička meets a wolf on a mountain. Once again, however, things are not as they seem: “. . . let’s try to speak of things as they are: it was not a wolf she met but something that had recently consumed a wolf”. And Dornička is not a little girl but an adult; the story draws not only on what is familiar to us in western Europe but also the tales of the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben – it takes its epigraph from his ballad “The Golden Spinning Wheel”, a gruesome slant on a Cinderella tale.

Despite all these influences, the story is absolutely Oyeyemi’s own, set in a world where “speaking of things as they are” might lead the reader in any direction at all. And her arguments, about identity, about sexuality, are more fluid than Carter’s, as is to be expected from a writer of her generation and with her history. Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi has lived in the UK since the age of four. Writers with a foot in two places often have a keen sense of what it means to belong – or not to belong.

She plays with this idea most directly in “a brief history of the homely wench society”, in which a group of young women push down the doors of an all-male society at Cambridge University (the author’s alma mater; I reckon she knows whereof she speaks). What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is freighted with ideas of entry, of permission: it is a book full of locks and keys. In the opening story, “books and roses”, a foundling is left in a chapel; the little girl has a golden chain around her neck, and on the chain is a key. As she grows, the girl tries every lock, but no doors open. “. . . what could she call it, a notion, a suggestion, a promise?” She will discover that the key fits the door of a library that smells of leather and roses.

But the path to the door is not direct: like most of the tales in this book, “books and roses” loops and swirls, hooking characters together and then setting them apart, making the reader wait until the next story (or perhaps the one after that) to meet up with them again. Do not be misled by this recurrence; the stories here are linked not by a thread of events, but by a sensibility, one cut free from the constraints of conventional narrative. The tales’ swerving trajectory makes their peaks of emotion – as when a character in “presence” imagines the life of the child she has never had – all the more powerful. Reading What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is like settling into a roller coaster: you must abandon yourself to the turns and drops. Only then will you enjoy the ride.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi is published by Picador (263pp, £14.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism