MILTON COURT, THE BARBICAN, LONDON | OCTOBER 23, 2016
First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1985, Robert Ashley’s landmark television opera Perfect Lives stumbles through bank robberies, cocktail bars, hotel rooms and starlit plains to create a fragmentary exploration of the Midwestern American experience. Pondering mortality, banality, chintz and selfhood, the seven-act work proffers a peppered snapshot, humorously bound by Ashley’s self-delivered libretti. Through whistled purrs Ashley gives a wry and tangential performance, flitting equally between sassy satire and unassuming tenderness. Halving the original runtime, Matmos’ stage adaptation cuts four of the original seven acts to run at a digestible 90 minutes. Skilfully condensed, the work sacrifices plot for stylistic fidelity, artfully presenting Ashley at his wicked, ruminative best.
“To perform Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives you need to be respectful to a score that is precise about cadence and the tempo of delivery, but is also very open and non-traditional,” says Matmos’ Drew Daniel in the programme notes. Six years before his death in March 2014, Ashley bore witness to Matmos’ version of Act VII of Perfect Lives, ‘The Backyard’, during a performance in New York. Their interpretation was met with his approval, and the duo “ended with a feeling of legitimation; that he thought our interpretation was valid, even though we had broken with some of the basic rules.”
Today’s expanded performance adds two acts – I. ‘The Park’ and IV. ‘The Bar’ – with Matmos’ other half, M.C. Schmidt, starring as narrator. Daniel mans the electronics, whilst a string trio, flautist, two female backing vocalists and a pianist also feature at various other moments. Behind them all a screen shows visuals mixed in real time by Max Eilbacher, which incorporates snippets of John Sanborn’s original material for TV, as well as other vintage footage not used in the original production. The visuals play their part effectively, but it’s Schmidt’s incorrigibly theatrical performance that truly brings the opera to the stage. His finest hour comes during the sleazy boogie-woogie of ‘The Bar’. Regaling incessant Martini-fuelled small-talk with a half-measure of cabaret croon, he captures the rhinestone chintz of the original in a manner that is arguably more convincing than Ashley’s soft prairie lisp.
It’s a touch of flair you sense that Ashley would appreciate. Indeed, before deciding to recite the monologue himself, Ashley had initially bookmarked David Byrne to take on the opera’s sprawling libretti. But Schmidt’s isn’t the only voice that brings Perfect Lives to the stage in such successful fashion. Backing vocals from Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby add a doubting deadpan to ‘The Park’’s Motel Lynch claustrophobia. Though largely confined to textual displays in the original broadcast, the vocalists’ blurted exclamations of “No doubt,” “A fact,” and “Of course” imply a sarcastic inner critique from the corners of the narrator’s psyche that heightens the air of emptiness and alienation. Daniel’s decision to replace the soft toms of the original with an Arthur Russell-tinged tabla drone adds a finger-tapping restlessness to the moment – further proof that this is not merely an adaptation, but a progression of Ashley’s original.
With clarity and imagination, Matmos have neatly repackaged Perfect Lives from a three hour TV broadcast into a 90 minute stage production. Respectfully devout yet courageously original, it’s a sublime reworking.