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June 13, 2010

Infernal is the word for music-theater piece starring John Malkovich as serial killer

The Luminato Festival in Toronto, where I'm spending a few diverting days, has not opened with the cheeriest subject matter imaginable.

Among the festival's initial productions: The world premiere of the oratorio "Dark Star Requiem," which addresses the toll of AIDS, and the North American premiere of a music-theater piece called "The Infernal Comedy, “ which bears the subtitle "Confessions of a Serial Killer."

I caught the latter on an appropriately drizzly Saturday night; the atmosphere was even gloomier inside Massey Hall, despite the occasional laughs generated by John Malkovich in a typically intense, extraordinarily creepy performance as Austrian Jack Unterweger. This real-life murderer preyed on women, especially prostitutes. Most of his killings were committed after being paroled in 1990 from a 15-year sentence for a 1976 murder and being lionized as a reformed criminal. He committed suicide before facing trial again in Austria.

You can admire the daring of the concept for this show, created and directed by Michael Sturminger, but it would take considerable effort, I imagine, to like it. The Unterweger character is introduced as if at a lecture/reading, part of a book tour (he's actually already dead, which puts a new spin on "ghost writer").

Interspersed with his monologues are

soprano arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn and Weber -- all with texts on scorned lovers, cruelty, deceit, murderous thoughts, etc. The vocal soloists stand in for the Unterweger's victims, at one point being strangled (well, simulated) with bras, one of the killer's methods.

I'm all for edgy subject matter and toying with convention, but there's always a thin line between simply portraying and somehow celebrating or sympathizing with evildoers when they are put onstage or into films as the main focus. "The Infernal Comedy" keeps going over the line, making Unteweger too much the ingratiating fellow, crude but fun, like some stand-up comedian who gets foul-mouthed every now and then for a cheap laugh, but is still just such an entertaining guy. The murders are treated partly as entertainment, too, in a way, and the net effect is simply distasteful, rather than insightful.

That said, Malkovich couldn't have given it a better shot, with a scrupulous Austrian accent (he should, however, have given "California" the full Schwarzenegger pronunciation) and an ability to convey the character’s ever-simmering mania and pathetic self-justification.

The musical end of things was excellent, thanks to a nimble, expressive period instrument ensemble, the Vienna Academy Orchestra, led with assurance and style by Martin Haselbock; and two eloquent sopranos, Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet. In the end, it felt like a very long, uncomfortable evening.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:16 PM | | Comments (1)


I find the idea of this work to be appalling -- our society (at least "in the spotlight") is WAY too fixated on characters such as these. As for myself, I have no use for them at all; many better subjects exist to recognize, study, and/or celebrate, and one _really_ does not have to "try hard" to find them. Choosing a criminal is a cop-out. (Apparently, high body counts = big sales? Not outta MY wallet.)

Malkovich is always engaging, but when he chooses roles like these (much like Anthony Hopkins with the fictional Hannibal Lecter), you cannot help but feel that his talent is truly being wasted on garbage.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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