, October 2010
John Malkovich doesn’t sing a note in this “drama for one actor, two singers and orchestra.” Let’s get that out of the way up front. This is not a late attempt of his to show talents no one knew he had. What Malkovich does do in this new work, entitled The Infernal Comedy, is reaffirm that he is a cold-blooded killer of an actor—not just because he plays the sociopath and convicted murderer Jack Unterweger (1950–1994), but because he depicts the Austrian serial killer with uncanny sincerity.
The Infernal Comedy is something of a post-modern pastiche, or maybe even a semi-opera. It was written and directed by Michael Sturminger, based on the original concept by conductor Martin Haselböck and costume designer Birgit Hutter. It imagines Unterweger—who after his imprisonment rose to fame for his literary talent and was let out on parole, only to kill again—on a book tour touting his memoirs. Malkovich’s Unterweger addresses the audience at Vienna’s Ronacher Theater as if they were there for the signing, but things soon devolve when he is joined onstage by two sopranos who sing Baroque, Classical and Romantic arias. The women are not merely symbols or figments of his insanity but characters with whom Malkovich interacts. (He even strangles one as Unterweger reportedly did to several prostitutes.) In true post-modern fashion, Malkovich at one point reads out loud from Unterweger’s Wikipedia page.
These many incongruous parts really shouldn’t work together, but somehow they do. The reason may lie more in the high quality of the artists’ contributions than in the tenuous textual connection between Unterweger’s murders and, say, the text of Beethoven’s “Ah! Perfido” (“Where has there been such cruel tyranny?”).
First, there is Malkovich’s brilliance. He reaches a fever pitch, revealing dark corner after dark corner of Unterweger’s solipsistic mind, with a deadpan delivery that is downright frightening. Malkovich sees the character as a man who left the world of societal rules a long time ago. The Austrian is almost bored with his desire to kill women. It is more of a compulsion. Women have a sway over him; he says early on that they “make him lose his mind.”
Malkovich is especially effective, even creepy, when he gropes and assaults sopranos Laura Aikin and Aleksandra Zamojska. It’s rather a shock to witness, for anyone who has spent years watching singers onstage, where unspoken rules govern what can and cannot happen to them. The realism that Malkovich injects into the play is dead-on, even if his Austrian accent is delivered in an exaggerated, halting manner.
But the music doesn’t take a back seat to the actor. From the fiery traversal of Gluck’s ciacona “L’enfer,” from Don Juan, which opens the piece, to the vibrant accompaniment of the singers, the Orchester Wiener Akademie under Haselböck lends compelling energy to the action. This wonderful rawness is taken up by Zamojska and Aikin in their electric delivery of arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven and others. Again, whatever light these works shed on Unterweger’s tortured psyche, the greater effect comes from their inherent drama and expression of emotion. This is not a play that would hold up well with lesser performers.
It might not be fair to fully assess the singers based on their work here, since they had to contend with the staging. (At one point, Malkovich puts bras on both vocalists, reportedly Unterweger’s preferred means of strangulation.) Yet Zamojska and Aikin sing with clear, precise voices, nailing ornaments and diction even as the actor physically assaults them. They give committed performances of the arias and even concert pieces such as Mozart’s “Ah, lo previdi!”
The Infernal Comedy, which is actually funny at times, is ultimately impossible to categorize. Its ending is unpredictable, too. But that’s a breath of fresh air in an art form in which you know most of the plots before entering the opera house. Until someone finds a way to turn Being John Malkovich into an opera, this is perhaps the only operatic creation you are likely to see that could possibly feature John Malkovich. And it strangely works.