Friday, June 3, 2011


Infernal Comedy
June 2
Atonality and Abstraction
May 30 & 31

Prague Spring could do very well rolling out the same old classical warhorses every year. So it’s been refreshing to see the festival broadening its portfolio, with breathtaking results over the past week.

A charming, ruthless killer.
Last night’s performance of The Infernal Comedy, a tour de force for American actor John Malkovich, offered a bracing reminder of how exciting first-rate work can be. The acting, singing and playing by the Orchester Wiener Akademie were all superb, and more than that, woven together so ingeniously that the piece was one of those rare creations – a true hybrid, a synthesis of familiar elements into something strikingly fresh and original.

Malkovich portrays Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial killer who cut a bloody swath through his homeland and, after he was released from prison in 1990, several other countries. Unterweger turned to writing, becoming a popular author while he was behind bars, and The Infernal Comedy opens with him on a book tour. But writer and director Michael Sturminger sets the timing of the tour after Unterweger’s death (by suicide) in 1994. So in a Sunset Boulevard-like twist, the entire evening is narrated by a dead man.

Unterweger not only shows no remorse for his crimes; he embraces them as his ticket to fame. “I’d rather be a killer than no one,” he says just before strangling one of the singers for the third time. The role of a lecherous psychotic is a natural fit for Malkovich, but what really makes his performance so chillingly effective is his persuasive charm, the way he draws the audience in with a polite, even self-deprecating persona that can turn in an instant to a cold-blooded killer.

All this plays out in front of a virtuoso Baroque orchestra, conducted by Martin Haselböck, playing some of the loveliest music of the period by composers like Gluck, Gasparini, Haydn and Mozart. Most of the selections are arias, sung last night by Bernarda Bobro and Aleksandra Zamojska, that either obliquely or directly intersect with the unfolding narrative. Bobro and Zamojska deserve medals – not only for their singing, but for the abuse they take over the course of the evening. Malkovich’s character molests or murders them almost every time they come onstage. The violence would be overwhelming were it not for the music, recalling the pioneering work done by Stanley Kubrick pairing the horrific and the sublime in A Clockwork Orange.

The piece has some intriguing Prague connections. The final aria, Ah, lo previdi!, was written by Mozart for his Prague patron and admirer Josefina Dušek. And Unterweger committed one of his murders here. Malkovich milked that as he recapped the killings, noting, “one of which occurred in Prague” – and then pausing for a meaningful stare at the audience. Such was the power of his performance that if the morning headlines had included news of an overnight strangling, it would have been no surprise.*

Kandinsky's impression of the concert.
The emotions evoked by the two-part “Tribute to Atonality and Abstraction” earlier in the week were rather cooler, but no less stimulating. The two performances – one at the Rudolfinum on Monday night, the second at Museum Kampa the following day – commemorated a seminal concert staged by composer Arnold Schönberg in Munich in January, 1911. Among the attendees was Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who heard in Schönberg’s atonal experiments an aural counterpart to the new ground he was breaking in abstract expressionism. Inspired, Kandinsky started an intense correspondence with Schönberg that helped lay the groundwork for the revolution in early 20th-century art.

Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 2 opened the program on Monday, played by the young Zemlinsky Quartet, who were perhaps in over the heads with such material. But pianist Siegfried Mauser brought some order to the composer’s chaotic Three Piano Pieces (Opus 11). And a very good chamber ensemble of Czech and American musicians provided solid backing for the two singers in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, local tenor Jaroslav Březina and hometown favorite Dagmar Pecková. The mezzo-soprano was almost unrecognizable in a diaphanous gown and new orange hairdo, but her rich, dusky voice was as compelling as ever.

Adept at singing Schönberg.
Austrian soprano Anna Maria Pammer, who lent some authority to the string quartet on Monday, sounded even better at Kampa on Tuesday performing two sets of Schönberg songs. The vocal demands of those pieces are severe, and Pammer showed great control and technique, particularly in keeping the more strident passages piercing rather than shrieking. Mauser provided strong accompaniment, as well as an intelligent reading of the sole movement of Mahler’s Piano quartet in A minor. The six members of the chamber group who came to play Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) were brilliant, handling the dark shadings of the first half and Romantic turns of the second with equal aplomb. The powerful resonance of the closing notes inspired the audience to bring the players back for three curtain calls.

This kind of programming is both rare and rarefied, and would have been welcome under any conditions. That the concerts brought performers of such outstanding caliber to Prague was a thrill – and, in the best tradition of crossover art, a treat for both the eyes and ears.

* Update: A third connection was added when Malkovich had a mobile phone, laptop and other items stolen from his hotel room during his brief stay in Prague. He alluded to the robbery during his performance – this critic thought it was part of the script. The theft happened at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the swankiest places in town. But that's no reflection on the hotel; people in this city will steal anything, anywhere. For further proof, check out this clip of President Václav Klaus pocketing a pen:

For more on the Schönberg commemoration:

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