Luminato Festival: North American Premiere of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer

The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer – a stage-play for a Baroque Orchestra, two Sopranos and one Actor

With music by Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven & Weber

Jack Unterweger – John Malkovich
Soprano I – Bernarda Bobro
Soprano II – Marie Arnet
Orchestra – The Vienna Academy Orchestra

Michael Sturminger – writer & stage director
Martin Haselböck – music concept & conductor

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 12 June, 2010
Venue: Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada

I would say that after seeing “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer”, putting on a brassiere will never be the same. But the production – which depicted the actor John Malkovich in the title role strangling several female characters with their own lingerie – just didn’t have that much impact on me.

The theater piece, one of the highlight’s of Toronto’s ambitious Luminato Festival, did look good on paper. Based on the true story of Jack Unterweger, a notorious womanizer and convicted murderer, it is billed as a “stage-play for a Baroque Orchestra, two sopranos and one actor”. Indeed, all of those elements: The Vienna Academy Orchestra, sopranos Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet, and particularly Malkovich, were individually successful. But together they were much less than the sum of their parts.

The production consisted of Malkovich’s monologue as the serial killer Unterweger, punctuated by aria and recitative selections by Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Weber performed by Bobro and Arnet accompanied by The Vienna Academy Orchestra. The texts of the vocal works depicted various aspects of love, jealousy, murder and death.

Both of the singers had especially fine voices, though neither delivered a sufficiently high emotional content to match the chilling story that Malkovich spun in his monologue. For his part, Malkovich was utterly convincing in his role, yet the production as a whole failed to create an environment in which one could easily suspend disbelief. One issue with stage direction, for example, was that each of the two singers portrayed several different women, but each of those characters were indistinguishable from each other. Therefore, rather than feeling like one was witnessing a serial killer in action, one simply saw the same woman being killed over and over again, only to come back to life. And since the characters that the singers portrayed showed no individual personality, it was difficult to generate sympathy for them.

The spotlight was on The Vienna Academy Orchestra as it set the tone for the performance with an overture that was artistic and polished. Though the horn section occasionally threatened to overpower the strings, conductor Martin Haselböck kept the sound light and musical. The ensemble was an excellent accompanist, never getting in the way of the singers. The group was seated on the stage for the entire piece, and sometimes was drawn into the dramatic action: Malkovich bantered with the conductor, flirted with a violist, and got the concertmaster to help him with his laptop.

The concept of weaving 18th- and 19th-century classical arias into the chilling tale of a ranting murderer must have seemed like a good idea. But, though the individual elements shone, once combined they failed to create a compelling evening of music and theatre.

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