Macabre Music Drama about Serial Murderer from Malkovich

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  The Infernal Comedy: A stage-play for Baroque orchestra, two sopranos and one actor with libretto/direction by Michael Sturminger and music from Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Weber. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.5.2012 (GR)

John Malkovich: Actor
Louise Fribo: Soprano
Marie Arnet: Soprano
Martin Haselböck: Conductor
Orchestra: Orchester Wiener Akademie

I’m not sure what the capacity audience were expecting when they settled down to this far from conventional item from the 2011/12 Birmingham International Concert Season, but judging by their response they were not disappointed. It exemplified the versatility of the programmes currently celebrating the 21st anniversary of Symphony Hall – from Bollywood to Hollywood with a generous helping of Wagner in-between. So how do you classify this monologue with music on the confessions of a serial killer, written with actor John Malkovich in mind? Music drama has often courted controversy and frequently focused on the extreme; this was no exception. Based upon an idea of Birgit Hutter and Martin Haselböck The Infernal Comedy centred on the notoriety of convicted murderer Jack Unterweger, originally produced by Musikkonzept in 2009. Unterweger was top of the Austrian league of devil incarnates until the 2008 revelations regarding Josef Fritzl reduced him to No 2. The format was akin to Singspiel with Malkovich’s spoken words in English (albeit with his applied foreign accent) and the sung ones in Italian with surtitles. It reminded me of an excellent version of Die Zauberflöte I saw several years ago with split English and German lines, a combination I find both palatable and cognisable.

Unterweger’s story is one to test that of the most seasoned of profilers. Whilst serving a fifteen year sentence for murder committed in 1974, his poetic and prose skills convinced the Austrian intelligentsia (and perhaps the do-gooders) that he was a reformed character; so his subsequent mandatory ten year parole was squashed. Freed, he preached the gospel of criminal rehabilitation whilst actually living a Jekyll and Hyde existence. Charm induced gullibility.

The Orchester Wiener Akademie opened proceedings with a ‘hellish’ rendering of the Introduction and Chaconne L’enfer from Gluck’s Don Juan. Their sound was distinctly Gluckian and their Introduction perfectly set the tone for the dastardly deeds to come. In Where begin? Malkovich took the personage of Unterweger, here to promote the book he had written in prison. He pointed out the importance of his name Jack and its apparently universal appeal to women. Begun with his first baby-smile, he developed an innate characteristic of never telling the truth. His relationship with his mother was mentioned raising the old chestnut of Nature versus Nurture. This led to Mother and the first aria Sposa son disprezzata from Ottone in villa credited to Vivaldi in the programme. Marie Arnet poignantly captured the text concerning the melancholy of the spurned wife while Malkovich retained memories of his mother by pressing his head against Arnet’s womb. Going walkabout in the front stalls, Malkovich got personal regarding their sex lives, referencing how as a Womaniser he was aided by the aphrodisiac attraction of a murderer. Touching upon loneliness, an antidote was provided in the form of Louise Fribo, singing Mozart’s insertion aria Vorrei Spiegarvi, Oh Dio!  Backed by a gorgeous oboe obbligato, Fribo handled the over two-octave range with delicacy and consummate ease. Neither was Fribo put off as Malkovich began to make a move from the rear, caressing her shoulders and letting down her trussed-up hair. Wanting to move things along, Malkovich’s seduction continued with flowers and a cake – possibly a symbolic reference to his previous remark of ‘having your cake and eating it’. Fribo retained her mellifluous delivery and depicted indifference at d’amor non parlate.

With further chords from Gluck, Malkovich confided more details of his secret weapons of persuasion and went on to relate how his reputation as a Writer grew. Now a journalist interviewing all and sundry about the very atrocities he had perpetrated, he was in a unique position to ‘cock a snook’ at the authorities, With Fribo and Arnet on stage for the opening dramatic bars of Beethoven’s Ah perfido, Malkovich produced a couple of brassieres and proceeded to fit them on the two sopranos (over their colourful evening dresses I might add). These garments were then used to demonstrate his MO – bra strangulation. Sturminger’s direction, plus strong accompaniment from conductor Haselböck and his band, some magnificent light and shade from Arnet and Beethoven’s catchy refrain were an intoxicating combination. The action more or less fitted the libretto and increased appreciation.

Malkovich proffered his philosophy in Liar. How else could a no-one such as he achieve such fame other than by multiple homicides? Further abuse by Malkovich of Fribo followed, sufficient to drive her to distraction, dramatically expressed in her delivery of Haydn’s Scena di Berenice. Her traumas were emotive and the closing aria Perché, se tanti siete electric! Further rhetorical questions and ravings followed in Killer; Malkovich blasted his request for the audience to ‘Buy the Book’. But where did the lies start and end? Obsessed by the demands of his publisher, Malkovich began to stroke the brow of the prone Fribo, arranging several open copies of his autobiography over her body. The tone of Weber’s Scene and Aria Ah, se Edmundo fosse l’uccisor concerning hatred and scorn again suited Unterweger’s ongoing confession; Arnet’s concluding coloratura threw disdain upon it all.

Malkovich’s final search for the truth took him to the Internet and his own entry in Wikipedia. His only conclusion was that his life was a failure. In Exit we finally saw him tracked down and incarcerated again. Surely a Tennyson or a Rebus would have nailed him sooner! Next Malkovich wove an intricate pattern with a rope, intent upon suicide to the accompaniment of Mozart’s Ah, lo prevido! and (perhaps some might have foreseen it)  living and dying by strangulation. Each section of Fribo’s final number portrayed a distinctive message to Unterweger; an impassioned expletory recitative against all this monster stood for; a mournful penitent aria for those who might have put his behaviour down to a disturbed childhood; a sensitive and melodic cavatina that drew the soloist to Malkovich’s side, proving that the man was capable of attracting women to the end.

But with Malkovich on the table preparing to jump, the serial killer had the last laugh: ‘I’ve been here before. I’m not going through it again. If you come to Dublin tomorrow I might change my mind’. Entitled a comedy, this was hardly a happy ending and throughout I did not find a great deal to laugh about; the audience seemed to agree. Nevertheless there were many redeeming features: Haselböck’s choice of music, the direction of Sturminger, Malkovich’s sterling delivery and two outstanding singers.

Geoff Read

The previous week, Malkovich & Co. performed The Infernal Comedy at the Dresden Music Festival, S&H review here.