Glass’ grandeur

The Perfect American (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Concert Hall

September 15 – 20

Opera remains one of theatre’s most majestic traditions. And you don’t get much grander than “The Perfect American”, whose Brisbane Festival, Australian premiere represented only its third outing, after a world premiere in Madrid and acclaimed London season.

This 24th opera from iconic contemporary composer Philip Glass, imagines the private torments of the final months of Walt Disney’s life. And as the man who makes animals talk, British baritone Christopher Purves is wonderful in reprisal of his demanding role as Disney, a character who is rarely offstage. However it the visually impressive production itself that is the real star. Recreated by its original team, including Australian-based designer Dan Portra (the man responsible for the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony), the production is aesthetically spectacular in its use of a large Italian-designed installation of giant spinning boom arm and long translucent sheets of silk used to project sometimes monochromatic line drawing images as metaphor to methods of animation. While the stage itself remains functionally sterile, these images serve to layer a fragile and delicate world of warmth, whose multiple angles fully immerse the audience into the experience. Indeed, from the depth of corridors and textures of water, every aspect is enhanced by the show’s projections and the combination of set, lighting and costumes create unified perfection in exploration of Disney’s magical world of wonder.

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Glass is an American icon, writing about another American icon and his score is suitably luxurious. And, in accompaniment, the Opera Queensland chorus proves yet again what a great ensemble it is. From a stage section lowered to accommodate the large orchestra, The Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gareth Jones gives the score heart and soul, with the ethereal nature of music setting the tone for the show’s dreamlike sequences in contrast to later nightmarish perceptions.

The first act focuses on the public face of the idealistic animation ‘imagineer’ as, ever the perfect American, he returns to his small-town, main-street-USA origins, where he is regarded as a folk hero like apple pie and popcorn. In his hospital bed he hopes to defy death in messiah-like fashion, so is fascinated with the new theories of cryogenics. By contrast, the second act’s deathbed flashbacks focus is much darker. Cared for by Hazel (Cheryl Barker), his one and only Snow White nurse and confidante, the man behind the myth explores his inner demons as an insecure artist and ruthless CEO of the Disney empire, hiding behind a mouse and a duck, as portrayed in Peter Stephan Jungk’s book, “The Perfect American”.

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Disney is an enigmatic figure: folk hero, favourite son and fanatic. And while “The Perfect American” examines the myth of a man in all of these guises, it does so without judgment, not shying away from depiction of his less-likeable character traits, particularly in his alienation of Disney employees, and delusions of grandeur. Indeed, one of the opera’s most memorable scenes (thanks to a marvelous portrayal by Zachary James), sees Disney has a conversation with a malfunctioning Abraham Lincoln animatronic Disney World statue where he discusses race.

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Walt Disney’s story is one of contrasts and complexities, and it is told with style in “The Perfect American”. Although not overly patriotic in its Americaness, however, it does become preachy in its history lesson list-like revelations about the man and the company’s achievements. And, while the work is stylistically of western tradition, the use of subtitles, for an English opera serves only to distract, especially given their inaccuracies and errors. However, ultimately a production is about more than just the sum of its parts and holistically “The Perfect American” is a pretty extraordinary experience in its grandeur.

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