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.
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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