The life, or more accurately death, of Walt Disney could’ve done with some help from a mouse and a duck.

English National Opera, London Coliseum, June 27

The art of Walt Disney and the music of Philip Glass might have been a marriage made in heaven. After all, the cartoonist’s craft, like the minimalist’s musical palette, involves hundreds of repetitive gestures strung together to produce tiny, perceptible changes. An obvious synergy there then.

Improbable theatre company co-founder Phelim McDermott’s busy, smart looking world premiere production for Madrid’s Teatro Real and presented here by co-producer English National Opera certainly appreciates that potential. The theatrically slick combination of projected animations and Improbable’s hallmark ‘cardboard and string’ design is all flickering lights and sweeping cinematography. The bustling chorus of singers enhanced by (an occasionally scrappy) ‘skills ensemble’ capture the microcosm of faceless creativity behind the scenes, producing Disney’s painstakingly generated masterpieces. Despite their recently reported financial woes, English National Opera are to be applauded for a level of creativity and imaginative programming that we in Australia can only dream of.

What lets it all down, sad to say, is the score – at least in the first half. Philip Glass’s 25th opera turns out to be one of his duller affairs. The music is written in his post-Hydrogen Jukebox vein, all chuntering strings and driving percussive effects. There are moments of power but more often mere portentousness and there are too many longuers where the music simply treads water. In a nutshell, the opera lacks the fleet-footed imagination of its titular hero. Rudy Wurlitzer’s functional but poetically plain libretto is equally unmemorable with a tendency to state the obvious rather than allowing our imaginations the necessary leeway.

If you are happy to let the production carry you along, and ignore the lack of compositional verve coming from the pit, then there is much to hold the attention. Disney’s animators morph back and forth into nightmarish versions of the animals they are supposed to be drawing. Swirling projection screens are torn down with consummate timing moving us between the world of the cartoonist’s imagination and the clinical world of Walt’s hospital room. Joseph Pierce’s animations, focussing on Disney’s earliest artworks, and Leo Warner’s video design are also exemplary.

Christopher Purves is damn near perfect as Disney, the ironically labelled “Perfect American” of the title. The character is explored in flashback from the point of view of the 65-year-old Walt dying of lung cancer in a Californian hospital in 1966. Purves captures the charismatic showman from the get-go, winning us over with potent voice and pinpoint diction. His obsession with legacy, control and fear of death are conveyed with economy in a performance of great subtlety. Despite the subsequent focus on Disney’s arrogance, lack of imagination and downright objectionable right-wing views, Purves keeps us onside, hoping for the redemptive moment that nearly comes when the dying entrepreneur meets Josh, a terminally ill kid who idolises Disney and can’t believe that he’s in the hospital room next door.

The rest of the cast perform effectively enough but, condemned to the sidelines by the disinterested librettist, struggle to lift their roles beyond the level of cyphers. Interesting figures like Hazel George, Disney’s nurse, who apparently got closer to him at the end of his life than anyone had done previously, are introduced only to disappear, undeveloped as characters. That said, Donald Kaasch as Dantine, an exploited former Disney artist, and Rosie Lomas as Josh manage to stand out. It’s a pity that John Easterlin’s Andy Warhol reduces the pop artist and Disney admirer to the level of a campy John Inman comedy turn.

Frustratingly the second half turns out to have more musical imagination and variety than the first, making you wish that Glass might go back to the drawing board and rework Act I. The dramatic ideas are more compelling too. Disney’s wish to be cryogenically frozen, like a still from one of his cartoons, was never realised – just like so many American dreams – and the exploration of issues like these are more than capable of holding our attention when allied with Glass in better musical form.

By this stage the opera is focusing on what constitutes the artist in an essentially collaborative medium – Disney was one of the first in a long line that includes Warhol and nowadays the likes of Damien Hirst. There is a conscious decision not to show us Mickey or Donald, and in that respect it is surely right in avoiding any hint of cutesy nostalgia. But when Disney claimed, “My whole life I’ve been hiding behind a mouse and a duck”, he was acknowledging both the unknown personality of the creator and the magical cloak of concealment that was his ‘art’. In The Perfect American we get a glimpse of the former but an insufficient dose of the latter.

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