Kelly, Janis


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.

IntermezzoRichard Strauss - Intermezzo

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012

Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.

Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.

Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.

Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.

It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.

Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.

Nixon

The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.