Following on from their glorious production of his Satyagraha, Improbable Theatre and its artistic director Phelim McDermott renew their relationship with composer Philip Glass to collaborate on his new opera, a fictionalised musing on the last months of Walt Disney’s life.
Based on the novel by Peter Stephan Jungk and with a libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer, it paints a far from flattering portrait of the man who created an empire out of cartoon creatures and crowd-pleasing theme parks, accusing him not only of racism but also, through the fictitious character of a disgruntled former employee (Donald Kaasch), suggesting that he was little more than a megalomaniac CEO who profited from the creative abilities of others.
As he lies on his hospital bed, dying of cancer, this Disney (impressively sung by Christopher Purves in a rich, clear baritone) revisits the inspirational pleasures of his early life growing up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri, flashes back (in non-linear fashion) to time spent at work and with his family, and agonizes over his own mortality.
There’s a brief interlude with a malfunctioning animatronic Lincoln (Zachary James) which Disney tries to bend to his will, and, amusingly, an even shorter one with a posing Andy Warhol.
The choreographed movement frequently feels awkward – putting the team of check-trousered animators through their bunny-hopping paces just doesn’t work. But the simple line drawings and animal silhouettes projected on flickering, gauzy curtains add a cinematic feel and reflect the drafting process.
Whilst doing nothing to offend his many fans, on first hearing this isn’t amongst the most memorable of Glass’s two dozen opera scores. But Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck admirers might feel slightly cheated – the production couldn’t have used those iconic copyright images even if it had wanted to as, not surprisingly, the Disney estate declined to grant permission.
English National Opera at the London Coliseum
St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES
Tube | Leicester Square/Charing Cross
Until 28th June
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith