What's puzzling about The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, now at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston as part of an international tour, is the impulse to combine these two disparate elements. And what's disappointing about the enterprise is that it's not as if either especially enhances the other.
Co-conceived by Musica Angelica conductor Martin Haselböck in 2008, the work's biggest stumbling block is librettist/director Michael Sturminger's underwritten text, loosely based on the real-life story of the late Austrian author Jack Unterweger. Imprisoned for killing a young woman, Unterweger was released after he wrote a best-selling autobiography, Purgatory. Deemed rehabilitated, he built a career as a journalist specializing in sex crimes -- and managed to murder at least 11 more women. It's a fascinating story, but you could glean far more insight on the subject of sexual deviance from just about any episode of Law & Order: SVU.
But Sturminger has a more avant-garde agenda in mind than a straight bioplay. He has Malkovich -- speaking haltingly, in an absurd and inconsistent "Owstrian" accent -- occasionally break the fourth wall to flirt creepily with various women in the audience, before returning to the business at hand. Not surprisingly, Malkovich is at his lively best when he departs from the skimpy script and goes off on a rant of his own -- complaining, for instance, about the Mac that Jack has been given to "Wikipedia" himself ("I am a PC!").
The sopranos (currently being played by Sophie Klussmann and Claire Meghnagi) function as helpmeets, enabling Jack to act out his memories. Playing the young unwed mother who abandoned him, Meghnagi -- having soothed Jack with Vivaldi's "Sposa son disprezzata" -- is the first to be brutally knocked to the ground, while Klussman has the distinction of being choked with the bra that Jack has lovingly tucked her into, and being dragged across the stage.
The young singers deserve praise for both their fortitude and musical aptitude; however, the physical "comedy" in which they're colluding is hardly that. Even given Jack's twisted psyche as the designated point of view, it's discomfiting to see violence against women treated as sport, as meat for laughter.
Also disturbing, and ultimately tedious, is the fact that all the musical selections play up a theme of female masochism: the women continually decry a lover's "crudeltà" and beg for "pietà," yet hang in there for the hard knocks and the occasional caress. (It's also hard to know what to make of the seemingly badly translated surtitles for this parade of Baroque torch songs.)
Yet, at the very least, Malkovich and company may be performing a public service in attracting a new audience to classical music -- even if this is an odd vehicle to accomplish the task.