Many things should be noted about Robert Ashley's unusual opera "Perfect Lives (Private Parts)," but the most pressing is that it was a failure. It was a mistake to book this musical video event into the vast Pension Building, where the space overpowered the performance. But ultimately it was the work itself that must be blamed for Saturday night's dull disaster.
Seven television sets were stacked center stage, flanked on the right by a raised floor for two actors and on the left by a piano. Downstage were loudspeakers and upstage were the building's imposing columns. Behind the audience was a video lounge where one could view close-ups of the performers, who were otherwise kept at sports-arena distance from the public. The composer arrived at the stacked TVs. Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem took their seats, and "Blue" Gene Tyranny sat at the piano. The opera began.
Most of "PL(PP)" consists of spoken monologues read from cue cards on a video prompter by Ashley himself. Whenever it was audible -- or readable at the video bar -- the text was interesting: bizarre verbal images of life in the Middle West, mirroring the images on the various screens. In performance the text was obscured by Ashley's monotone, by the amplified resonance or by the taped score. It was as if Sam Shepard had taken to writing mantras.
These mantras in themselves might have been powerful in a smaller space. Seven TVs can be awesome in, say, the 9:30 club or the Corcoran Auditorium. In the Pension Building they were silly and easily ignored. The distance made it impossible to notice much, and the unintelligible text enlightened little. Although a Brechtian artificiality was approached, it was not used.
The score was not so much thick as viscous. It insisted on invoking all its influences at once and often resulted simply in homogenized loudness. Vague echoes of the electronic experiments of the 1960s sounded tired. Rhythmic and timbral references to new-wave rock had a geriatric awkwardness about them, as if the Moody Blues suddenly had decided to narrate Nina Hagen's music. When the opera resembled minimalism, it was only that movement's more obvious pattern, not its better music.
By far the most successful element was the piano scoring, played brilliantly by Tyranny live and on tape. It was jazz writing, recalling the likes of Steve Kuhn and Egberto Gismonti. And when the text happily matched the impulse of the piano, the aural word was at least briefly that of Frederic Rzweski's "Coming Together."
At the outset the narrator promised that the first lesson would be: "When you get old you have a tendency to see how much you've cooperated . . . It was worth it." Actually, "Perfect Lives (Private Parts)" was not.