Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
The Perfect American - an opera (2013)
Christopher Purves - Walt Disney; David Pittsinger - Roy Disney; Donald Kaasch - Dantine; Janis Kelly - Hazel George; Marie McLaughlin - Lillian Disney; Sarah Tynan - Sharon; Nazan Fikret - Diane; Rosie Lomas - Lucy/Josh; Zachary James - Abraham Lincoln/A funerary worker; John Easterlin - Andy Warhol
The Improbable Skills Ensemble
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real Madrid/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain, 22 January 2013 (first performance)
Sound format: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Picture format: 16:9, 1080i
Region: ABC
Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Korean, Spanish, Japanese
Reviewed in dts-HD MA 5.1

If you know and like the work of Philip Glass then this issue is self recommending. I need only assure you that it is well done in all respects from composition, through theatrical production to home reproduction.
I was surprised to discover that this is the first opera by Philip Glass to reach Blu-ray. It is fitting that since this was the world premiere, and recorded in the presence of the composer, he makes a curtain call at the end. For some reason this piece has disturbed Americans and it has yet to be performed in the States. The premiere was this performance in Spain. The second run was at the English National Opera in London. The production goes to Australia's Opera Queensland in September 2014. All these productions are the same, as are several members of the cast so if you attended ENO earlier this year, this is the disc for you. Aside from that you will have to book your tickets to Oz to see it live again.
The excellent and very informative booklet essay describes the background and plot in plenty of detail. Since the opera is sung in English, mostly by native English speakers, and subtitles are available, there should be no room for confusion. One or two small parts are sung by Spanish speakers from the Teatro Real itself but they are perfectly understandable. Since for most viewers this disc will be the first time they have seen or heard the opera, a focus on the words is very important. The Perfect American, like all of the Glass operas, and like all the best opera, is music, words and theatre. Glass is as much a man of the theatre as any composer having composed an amazing 27 operas, of which this is the 25th. The 27th, still unperformed, is a setting of Kafka's The Trial written for Music Theatre Wales. Listening to The Perfect American without pictures, as one would if it were just a CD, would be scratching the surface of a complex and absorbing creation. Having attended the ENO dress rehearsal last May, I found this disc a splendid reminder of that event. It is everything one could wish for in terms of sound and picture. It has one thing that the Coliseum did not provide: close proximity to the action. A lot goes on in this piece and all the stage details are valuable. The video back-projections, the actions of the wonderfully named Improbable Skills Ensemble, as well as what the characters sing and how they interact, all this bears close examination as well as viewing at a distance. At ENO only the last view was available so I learned more about a remarkable work from this Blu-ray. 

The action is set entirely in 1966, the final year of Disney's life. It switches between his Los Angeles home, his hospital bed in Burbank, his office, the first Disneyland and his childhood home in Missouri. He is revealed as a complex man with right-wing values and not much akin to the kindly and sentimental image conveyed by his fairytale, folksy and cute cartoon characters. Three characters carry the drama: Walt himself, his brother Roy Disney who took over the empire after Walt's death and William Dantine, an employee who was sacked for his forthright views. Dantine returns at various points in the story to remind Disney of the workers who created his fame and wealth. In passing we meet a robotic Abraham Lincoln, whose words remind us that there was a yawning gap between Disney's 'spirit of America' and that of its founding fathers. We are also introduced to Disney's wife and the strange figure of Lucy/Josh, two characters played by one singer, who seem to represent the spirit of childhood which was so central to Disney's achievement. 

Glass does not write conventional music though he uses a fairly conventional orchestra. One London critic hoped that this was not the future of opera. I think he needs to enlarge his view of what opera is. As a genre it includes not only Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, Mozart, and Britten. It also embraces Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Martinů, Ravel, Stravinsky, Janáček and indeed Mark-Anthony Turnage. Philip Glass is quite an original voice but hardly that far off the beaten track. One of his key achievements is that he is always interesting to watch. The 110 minutes of The Perfect American goes by quickly enough and is certainly provocative. The music is simple and sometimes quite moving. It does not have the memorable tunes of Mozart or Strauss. It doesn't have the emotional clout of Puccini or Janáček. On the other hand it does not waste the viewer's time with trivia. There are important and thought-provoking ideas here like the gap between America's view of itself and that of the rest of the world and between individual artistic achievement and art resulting from team work. There is also musical inventiveness on display. Having been through a minimalist phase in the 1960s and 1970s, Glass may repeat himself within works but none of the operas I have seen sound particularly alike; at least no more than do those of Verdi or Puccini. The Perfect American is lyrical and at times borders on tuneful; as theatre it is wonderfully imaginative. It is certainly not difficult to enjoy and this issue is well worth its moderate asking price.  

Dave Billinge 

If you like Philip Glass operas this is an obvious purchase; if you do not know Glass, then I urge you to try this one.   


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