Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Wiener Akadamie/Haselböck @ Barbican Hall, London

17, 18 June 2011

With return ticket queues winding around the box office, expectations were high for writer/director Michael Sturminger’s The Infernal Comedy. A music-theatre piece about Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, it stopped off for two nights at the Barbican Hall in the middle of an extensive international tour.

Unterweger was sentenced to life imprisonment for strangling a prostitute in 1974. Whilst in prison he became a writer, and was so successful that the Austrian intellectual establishment campaigned for his release. After serving a minimum 15-year term, Unterweger was let out and went on to kill at least nine more women in Europe and the US before being tracked down and arrested. He committed suicide in 1994 on the day he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the second time.

Specifically written for actor John Malkovich, two sopranos and baroque orchestra, The Infernal Comedy brings Unterweger back to life in an extended monologue. His ostensible purpose is to sell his autobiography, but during the course of his speech the audience gradually discovers the psychological trauma beneath his lethal charm, and the disturbing horror of his crimes.

The problem with the piece is twofold: we never learn the true motivations for his murderous activities; and the Comedy is neither drama nor music, nor a very successful combination of both. Malkovich’s monologue (a touch awkward with his unconvincing Austrian accent) is interspersed with tragic arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, Haydn and Weber. These are shared by sopranos Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet, who also participate in the drama as Unterwegers mother and prostitute victims. The subject matter of the arias vulnerability, rage, despair are rather repetitive and too obviously sewn into the monologue. For example, Webers Ah, se Edmondo fosse luccisor! (What if Edmund were the killer!) towards the end of the piece is just too neat a comment on Unterweger as prime suspect in the killings of the 1990s.

The musical performances are also variable. Slovenian soprano Bernarda Bobro has a fine voice and displays more subtlety in her delivery than Swedish singer Marie Arnet. Martin Haselbck (who worked with Sturminger and Malkovich on the musical ideas for the Comedy) conducts with distinction and elicits some fine, but inconsistent playing from the Wiener Akademie (although the natural horn players were on very fine form). Overall, one cant help feeling that The Infernal Comedy is a bit too clever. Its as if Unterweger is having a laugh at all of us. But maybe thats the point.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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