'Seduction' needs to be smoother

Times Music Critic

The great seducer has been sent to hell hundreds and hundreds of times over the centuries, and still he returns to us in new guises. Don Juan is perhaps most famous from Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni," but every generation finds the versions it needs of the charismatic romancer.

Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial murderer who sexually abused and strangled women in Europe and Los Angeles, is a particularly grim, but not unamusing, Don for our times. At least he wasn't unamusing in "Seduction and Despair," a curious musical theater piece devised by the early music ensemble Musica Angelica as a vehicle for John Malkovich, and given two performances over the weekend at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica.

"Being Jack Unterweger" might have been a more suitable title.

Dressed in the shark's white suit and black polka-dot, open-collar shirt Unterweger sported in L.A., Malkovich cheerfully tapped into the mind of an unrepentant psychopath. Meanwhile Musica Angelica, conducted by Martin Haselbock, provided excerpts of instrumental pieces and arias from late Baroque and early Classical period composers that related in a vague sort of way. A noirish silent film by Andreas Hutter included scenes of driving through the streets of L.A. and Vienna, which provided another background that also related in a vague sort of way.

Little in the production, which had the feeling of an early workshop of an interesting concept, gelled. But if it was less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts, beginning with Michael Sturminger's text, were terrific.

Best known as a spunky opera director, Sturminger has worked in film, theater and was librettist for Bernard Lang's avant-garde opera "I Hate Mozart," one of the livelier Viennese offerings from the 250th anniversary of Mozart's death in 2006.

As Unterweger back from the dead -- he hung himself in 1994 after being convicted of murder -- Malkovich sits at a book-covered desk. Unterweger wants us to know that he was a liar and a killer, and both are just fine with him. "The first thing I learned was to smile and to lie," he says. Women, he found, fall for men who are named Jack. Women, he also found, have a fatal weakness for murderers.

The women in this production were two excellent sopranos, Celine Ricci and Robin Johannsen, who sing arias by Handel, Boccherini, Haydn, Weber and Mozart, with sentiments of women betrayed. "I am a wife, and I am scorned." "Your beloved is dying." "Oh, the unbearable pain." "Go, pitiless one! Go and dwell among the wild beasts." Another woman, Anja Krietsch, doesn't sing. Her job is simply to be killed, like the others, strangled with her brassiere.

Ricci, who was a knockout in Musica Angelica's recent performance of Handel's "Radamisto," was a knockout once more at the Sunday performance. She ended the 90-minute show with Mozart's concert aria, "A, lo previdi!" (Ah, I foresaw it!). Murdered earlier, the soprano is back in black, a mourner (for herself?), having foreseen nothing, and in a kind of rage that even the ever-collected Unterweger can't quite handle. Although Ricci made the aria work dramatically as a powerful climax to the afternoon, any number of other arias might have as well.

Malkovich staged the production and kept a script handy. Just beginning to absorb the character, he nonetheless found a fascinating surface. I believed him when he said, "I'd rather be a killer than no one." His direction, though, was minimal.

As a concert program, this collection of musical numbers and engaging performances from the period-instrument ensemble, as well as from Johannsen and Ricci, was perfectly satisfying. But as a theatrical experiment, "Seduction and Despair" needs a real score and a genuine production. The skeleton of something meaningful is there, and I hope Haselbock, Malkovich and Sturminger take the next step.



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