“A visually rhythmic flow of scenic magic on a blended Glass base. Gently but harrowingly absorbing". This was the first post-performance comment I posted on Twitter after heading up north to see the fourth and final performance of the Australian première of The Perfect American, Philip Glass’ latest opera and a fictional account of the final months of Walt Disney’s life. Presented by Opera Queensland and the 2014 Brisbane Festival, the work was commissioned by Teatro Real and the English National Opera, receiving its world première in Madrid less than two years ago in January 2013. Driven by the music of Glass and executed with theatrical artistry that reflects one of humanity’s modern collaborative accomplishments in technology, art, and performance, The Perfect American is a masterpiece.

Christopher Purves and Cheryl Barker © Dan Swinbourne
Christopher Purves and Cheryl Barker
© Dan Swinbourne
Director Phelim McDermot (director of the world première of The Enchanted Island for the Metropolitan Opera) has created something of a psychological drama built up from three perspectives: that of the man searching introspectively, that of his family, confidantes and workers and that of the audience looking to judge from afar. It feels appropriately and softly clinical. As Walt’s physical health takes a one-way journey towards death, his character, his arrogant idealism and his mental state are scrutinized under the microscope.

The production mimics this multi-dimensional approach in a relentless, restless and positively overwhelming experience via the designs of Dan Potra and the work of the entire creative team. High above the concert hall stage, two giant rotating gantries project a flood of animations and architecturally-sketched settings on screens and rolls and rolls of unfolding paper. A large centrally placed, disc-shaped platform (prominently featuring an austere hospital bed) both centres much of the action and facilitates ample spatial opportunity for the performers. It generates breathtaking momentum around the crisp, elegantly costumed characters evoking 1960’s Los Angeles high society, the honeybee-chequered attire worn by the numerous illustrators (certainly a reference to the little rewards of a worker-bee) and the beautifully interwoven scurry of suggested mice and ducks danced by Improbable Skills Ensemble and Expressions Dance Company (choreographer Ben Wright).

© Dan Swinbourne
© Dan Swinbourne
But in the midst of this spectacle is the unedifying portrayal of poor Walt, the man behind the art of a mouse, a duck and the Disney empire. As Walt, Christopher Purves’ performance is a mindboggling achievement. Between dressing gown and linen suit, Purves colours his character with wad after wad of expressive strength, every breath signalling vocal and musical magic. Walt’s desire for immortality through the assistance of cryogenics, the fear of his name not being remembered in death as anything more than as a corporate symbol, the perfect world he boyishly craves for to mimic his own perceptions of the life he knew growing up in small-town Marceline, Missouri, his love for his family, the exploitation of his workers: the whole complexity and contradictions of the character described by Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto (based on the book by Peter Stephan Jungk) is brought to life by Purves and comes across as if he himself conducts the entire performance.

Kanen Breen as Andy Warhol © Dan Swinbourne
Kanen Breen as Andy Warhol
© Dan Swinbourne
The actual conductor was Gareth Jones, expertly in control of the massive 70-plus musicians of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Their playing is superb and the music rendered is bound tightly to the vision and drama on stage, something I find key to a successful staging of a Glass opera. From the first moments in which the eerie, almost epic sounds emanate from the pit, there is no mistaking Glass’ signature rhythmic, repetitive music. In this work the hypnotic, subliminal qualities give way to a more kinetically descriptive style to find equilibrium with a richly orchestrated and at times classical score.

The principal artists accompanying Walt’s last months all contribute finely. Donald Kaasch gives a gutsy, solid performance as Dantine, the unionist left-wing "Commie" illustrator, symbol of the hundreds of worker bees under Walt who had no rights to own their work, who is ironically depicted as a fool. In the role of Walt's brother and business partner Roy, Douglas McNicol is as steadfast in his performance as his character is loyal, almost submissive, to Walt and his idealistic dreams. Their brotherly synergy is palpable.

Zachary James and Christopher Purves © Dan Swinbourne
Zachary James and Christopher Purves
© Dan Swinbourne
Cheryl Barker, as Hazel George, Walt's nurse, confidante and perhaps mistress, is theatrically and vocally seductive but experiences moments of difficulty with projection. The appearance of Andy Warhol, requesting a meeting with Walt to discuss having him sit for a portrait work, is colourfully, camply and entertainingly styled by Kanen Breen, and the quirky, tentacle-cabled-up animatronic of Abraham Lincoln is realised unforgettably by Zachary James, whose huge, robust bass resonates with force. Marie McLaughlin as Walt’s wife Lillian Disney, Sarah Crane and Jade Moffat, as his daughters Sharon and Diane respectively, complete the Disney family with dignity. Rosie Lomas deserves special credit for her undiscernible shift in her dual roles of the young girl Lucy (as the owl in Walt’s dreams come to life) and Josh (Walt’s young boy hospital bedfellow) although her vocal sweetness becomes more assured as Josh.

It’s unlikely you would leave the performance humming any of the music for long, but Glass's music is memorable and the visual and musical impression it leaves with you will last long indeed. Where this production heads to next is unknown but wherever it goes, it is one which is most definitely worth chasing.