Purves, Christopher


Perfect AmericanPhilip Glass - The Perfect American

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013 | Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel | Medici.tv / ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming, 5th February 2013

It’s not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass’s new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. His animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, smalltown country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress and union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn’t a nice guy. Why make an opera about him? Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of “The Perfect American”, even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance. If that’s its purpose however, the opera singularly fails to make its case.

Whether Walt Disney should be accorded the stature of being the subject for opera isn’t so much in question then as much as whether a study of the animation giant as the “Perfect American” really has as much to say about the society we live in today as the subjects of previous Glass biographical works - Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha) or the great reforming Egyptian pharaoh (Akhnaten). Whatever you think of Walt Disney or his children’s animation films, he’s not exactly the first person who comes to mind when you look around for a representative icon of American values. Yes, the Disney animation studio was certainly one of the earliest and biggest exports of American family values, the empire of the Mouse and the Duck expanding to conquer and achieve universal recognisability in even the most remote corners of the world. As for whether the personal attitudes of Disney persist and hold influence, there’s a case could certainly be made for that, but not laid specifically at the door of Walt Disney the man.

The idea that he may have been as important as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford may form a part of Walt Disney’s self-delusion, but there is no reason given why the audience should believe it or even any suggestion that anyone takes the comparison seriously. This is a fault that lies throughout the whole premise of the opera. Based on a novel by Peter Stephen Jungk, a fictionalised account of Walt Disney that recounts the last few months of his life, The Perfect American seems to be attempting to suggest that the flaws and delusions of one man have some kind of wider implication, but in reality it just presents the twisted views of one small-minded individual that seem to have no place or purpose on the operatic stage. The same could perhaps be said about Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, but the tragic story of the rise and demise of Anna Nicole Smith could arguably be said to reflect the pitfalls in following the American Dream with a broader historical scope (Marilyn Monroe) and more cutting social observation, at least on the compromised position of women within that Dream.

Like Anna Nicole, The Perfect American similarly relies heavily on a depiction of the corrupting influence of smalltown America. But whereas Anna Nicole Smith saw it as a “shithole” that she had to escape from, Walt Disney - in the kind of obvious expositional language that is prevalent throughout Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto (”Everything that I’ve become has its roots in Marceline“), looks back fondly on his origins, seeing in his hometown all the good old-fashioned American values that he holds dear. Just to emphasise his position as a reactionary and an unpleasant man, his relationship with Wilhelm Dantine - an animator on ‘The Sleeping Beauty‘ - and their fall-out over union activities is the linking element between the three acts, but Dantine is still devastated when Walt dies. The libretto’s idea of any other kind of character development is limited to snappy mottos (”Never say die!“), common clichés (Mickey Mouse being “more famous than Santa” and “more recognisable that Jesus“) and banal observations (”That’s what he does, spares everyone the worst“) that don’t so much highlight the nature of Disney as illustrate the lack of imagination of the libretto and the treatment.

Even those areas where the work tries a less literal approach, the implications are no less obvious and at the same time no more revealing of the man other than the scale of his self-delusion. He expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cryogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will “live forever”. A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a robot Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values.

The latter sequences allow director Phelim Mc Dermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging, but to be honest, it’s impressive throughout. It’s not on the same scale of brilliance of McDermott and his Improbable Ensemble’s work for Glass’s sublime Satyagraha a few years ago, but that narrative-free work called out for a strong collaborative theatrical expression. Here however, they still manage nonetheless to find an imaginative way to work with the rather more banal reality of The Perfect American, keeping it visually engaging and thematically relevant through projected animation sequences and supernumeraries playing the larger-than-life rabbits of Disney’s mind, avoiding any Mom and Apple-Pie clichés or overly literal depictions of small-town Americana.

The performances of the cast at the Madrid world premiere run in the Teatro Real (viewed via Internet streaming) were also exceptionally good. Christopher Purves was an outstanding Walt Disney, but all the cast managed to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into their singing. As scored by Glass however, there wasn’t much of that in the lifeless orchestration of bland repetition that lacked and real dynamic or variety in tempo and seemed to have no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It’s a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American doesn’t seem to fire the composer’s imagination this time, and it seems hardly likely to excite audiences when it comes to the English National Opera this summer.

The Perfect American is available to view via internet streaming - with some region restrictions in the UK - on Medici.tv and on ARTE Live Web.

SkinGeorge Benjamin - Written on Skin

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 14 July 2012

Commissioned by the Aix-en Provence Festival to have a Provençal theme, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin takes an interesting approach to the task in his second opera. With a libretto written by Martin Crimp, Benjamin mixes classicism with the avant-garde to powerful effect in his 21st century perspective on a 12th century legend composed by the troubadour poet Guillaume de Cabestany. It’s not just in the unusual mix of musical instruments that have been used however - the orchestration coloured by as varied a range as a viola de gamba, mandolins and glass harmonica - or even the use of a countertenor in a modern opera, but it’s the necessity of viewing the past through the eye of the present, of breaking down myth into reality, that is evident throughout every element of the production. Viewed here via internet streaming during its world premiere run at Aix on 14th July 2012, Written on Skin is consequently an intense operatic experience.

The story itself seems to be a relatively minor one, but it does nonetheless make some interesting observations about the nature of self-deception, the exercise of power over others and the difficulty of coming to terms with an understanding of one’s true nature. The drama plays out principally between only three main characters - a man, a woman and a boy. The man, known as the Protector, is a landowner, a man “addicted to purity and violence”, proud of his achievements (”I own the fields, I own everyone in them”) who likewise regards his wife as part of his property. He engages the Boy, an artisan, to create an illuminated book for him to record his great achievements and to depict the glorious ascent to Paradise that awaits him. The woman, Agnès, however seeks something else in the Boy, is attracted to him and asks him to create “another woman” for her, one who can open the eyes of her husband to his failings. For the Protector, the book is to put a spin on his belief in himself as a great man, for Agnès, it’s an opportunity to reveal the real woman and her desires that are suppressed by the man. Vanitas vanitatem. The outcome is inevitably tragic.

What makes this simple story rather more interesting is in how it is viewed from a modern perspective. The story is narrated by three Angels - the Boy is also one of the Angels, the other two play the parts of Marie, the sister of Agnès and her husband - who seem to exist in a separate dimension, and along with other stagehands, they seem to be recreating the events, directing the actors into their places, viewing the sequence of events as they play out and commenting on them. All the characters recite their words as if reading them from a narrative text - Boy:”What do you want, says the Boy”, Agnès: “To see, says the woman”. Vicki Mortimer’s stage designs, the stage divided into discreet locations seem to emphasis these separations between the reality and the meta-reality, between the story and its creation, between action and commentary on it. Most of the drama takes place in a thin lower strip of the stage, wooden, brown coloured that becomes a room and a bedroom leading to an exterior or a staircase, while the “angels” and their assistants look on form a modern blue-lit side-room and upper level “back office”.

While you are made aware of the characters relating their own words, playing a role, recreating events, it in no way however takes away from the intensity with which the story is depicted through the singing, the performances and in the brooding, probing, revealing musical score - the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted here by Benjamin himself - and through Katie Mitchell’s stage direction. The strength and power of the voices, as well as their combination of soprano, baritone and countertenor, are well arranged to achieve the necessary impact, but the actual casting of Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Bejun Mehta is critical in the ringing clarity of tones and in performances that push the violent passions to their limits. “Shatter the printing press. Make each new book a precious object written on skin“. Can you exhume and invoke the passions of the past and bring them to back to life in a manner that makes them meaningful and immediate to a modern audience? With opera - and the richness of musical and theatrical resources that it places at the disposal of a composer with the necessary ability - apparently you can.

Written on Skin is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web and on the Medici website. Some region restrictions may apply. The new work will also be able to be seen at the De Nederlandse opera in Amsterdam and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden later this year.

FalstaffGiuseppe Verdi - Falstaff

Glyndebourne, 2009 | Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Jones, Christopher Purves, Tassis Christoyannis, Dina Kuznetsova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Adriana Kučerová, Bülent Bezduz, Jennifer Holloway, Peter Hoare, Paolo Battaglia, Alasdair Elliott | Opus Arte

Richard Jones’ production of Falstaff for Glyndebourne in 2009 finds an appropriate updated setting for Verdi’s final opera (1893) – a delightful comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – in the quintessentially old-world ideal of the English countryside village of the immediate post-war years, populated by Bertie Wooster-style cads and scoundrels and mischievous ruddy-faced scamps out of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. Even the curtain drop has an embroidered-look landscape of Windsor castle to add to the sense of an ideal that may never have ever existed, an ideal that the aging knight John Falstaff mistakenly believes he embodies.

Fat, balding and gone to seed, propping up the bar at the Garter’s Arms, he believes he still incarnates everything that is noble and proud about old England, and mourns the passing of a time when men such as himself commanded respect and deference, (“There’s no more virtue, everything is in decline/ Time to go old John, go on your way/ Walk on until you die/ Then true manhood will have disappeared from this world”), and when the good ladies of the town would be flattered to receive his attentions. Undeterred by the reality of his situation, even by the burden that his servants have become, he sets out to woo two of Windsor’s merry wives, hoping to replenish his dwindling funds. Alas, poor John’s over-inflated idea of his charms makes him a laughing stock of the town.

Richard Jones set designs play perfectly on the image of this impossible ideal, recreating it as it would be in the minds of a modern audience who feel that the essence of Englishness and the nation itself is in decline – the country pub with the cat snoozing on the bar, the English country house with its cabbage garden, the old village street with bobbies on the beat, and a nearby wood for elves, fairies and sprites. The overall concept is sound, the sets impressively storybook larger-than-life, but there are numerous little details in the sets, in the costumes and in the characterisation that fits perfectly with this romanticised ideal.

Vladimir Jurowski, with the London Philharmonic, brings out Verdi’s magnificent score to perfection. This is Verdi on another register completely from his revolutions and melodramas, doing comedy with all the Italian dynamism of Rossini but with a subtlety of characterisation equal to the opera buffa of Mozart. The opera celebrates the underlying innocence, love and beauty that supports the poignant dream of an unachievable ideal, but it also cheekily acknowledges that the world would be a very dull place if it didn’t have characters like John Falstaff to stir up emotions and invigorate it with the spice of life. There are no show-stopping arias in Falstaff, but beautiful melodies and solo pieces that are fully integrated into the fabric of the score as a whole, Verdi’s pitching of mood, characterisation and drama absolutely impeccable and insightful.

Despite there being great scope and undoubtedly a great temptation to play this as straight farce, there is actually a great deal of subtlety in the singing and the performances here, particularly from Christopher Purves in a very convincing fat-suit. There’s no need to overplay when the libretto – derived from Shakespeare of course – and the score are so expressive, and no need to over-emphasise with showy singing, and all of the cast seem to be aware of this, delivering this particular Italian libretto with a proper sense of English reserve – even if the majority of the cast are not English.

The production looks and sounds terrific on this Opus Arte Blu-ray release. The bold sets look marvellous on the brightly-lit stage, but even in the night-time darkness of the final scene, there is excellent detail and colouration in the image. Audio tracks are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, and there is good detail and warmth of tone in both mixes. There are no extra features on the disc apart from a standard Cast listing and a narrated Synopsis.