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Sex, Lies, and Mozart Arias

Notes from the 2012 Dresden Music Festival ( 3 )

I am in beautiful Dresden – birthplace of milk chocolate – for the annual three-week Music Festival that has taken place since 1978. After Mozart-delight and Bach-despair, it was time for something completely different:

available at AmazonThe Infernal Comedy,
Malkovich, Haselböck et al.
ArtHaus DVD

available at AmazonThe Giacomo Variations,
Malkovich, Haselböck et al.
ArtHaus DVD

John Malkovich is Jack Unterweger, innocent mass murderer, world famous in Austria [sic], back from the dead, and on a publicity tour for his tell-all-or-does-it biography. But John Malkovich is also being John Malkovich (pun hard to avoid), capricious actor, on tour with a Viennese baroque orchestra performing the morbid musical comedy “The Infernal Comedy”. For a while there is a deliberate ambivalence between the characters, which contributes to the hard-to-pin-down quality of the show. Whether that’s good or bad would depend on how keen the viewer is on pinning things down hard. Jack Unterweger, with about a dozen sexually assaulted murder-victims to his name, would presumably have been all for pinning down. Creator and director Michael Sturminger, co-creator and conductor Martin Haselböck, and the pivotal Malkovich less so apparently, or else they wouldn’t have brought something on stage (and toured with it for four years) that leaves half the audience wondering what they had just witnessed.

Is “The Infernal Comedy” a play with applied music? Is the music integral or incidental? Do they demand each other; does one improve the other hierarchically (like whisky improving a cigar, but a cigar not improving whisky), or is it arranged for mutual benefit? Is it a dubiously efficient ploy to get people into the theater and listen to beautiful but obscure (and a few famous) classical and baroque arias that interactively alter with the ‘chapters’ of Malkovich-Unterweger’s story? “Sposa son disprezzata” (Vivaldi, Ottone in Villa) “Berenice, che fai” (from Haydn’s dramatic cantata Scena di Berenice), Carl Maria von Weber’s patchwork aria for an Étienne Méhul opera, “Ah, se Edmundo fosse l’uccisor” are all magnificent to hear, and Martene Grimson—one of the two sopranos that are part of the play—was delectable in Vivaldi and Weber and Beethoven’s “Ah perfido!”. Sophie Klußmann, substituting for the other soprano of the cast, managed her vocal and scenic duties admirably, too – whether she was being strangled, molested by Malkovich’s lusty-disturbed Unterweger, or singing Gluck and Mozart. The scraggy, committed Vienna Academy Orchestra was a delight, buzzing through the music with a transparency that brought out voices within the music that are all too often hidden by smooth homophony.

Amid this, Malkovich (who has done several projects that combine classical music and theater since the inception of this production) went through concentric circles of contrivance with a Pepé Le Pew routine in pseudo-Austrian accent (strategic mispronunciations alternating with eloquent runs of idiomatic American) and the slight difference that he didn’t just want to smooch his Penelope, but strangle her with her own brassiere. (A tragic end for any pussy.) Are we not entertained? Most of the audience seemed sufficiently engrossed with these “confessions of a serial killer”: drawn in by the enigmatic presence of Malkovich’s creepy predator and entertained by terrific music.

Picture of John Malkovich courtesy Dresden Music Festival, © Stephan Floss