The Pleasures of Excess

Stefan Bachmann’s production of Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio is an epic romp, a ‘wistful and witful’ soap opera in five acts

On The Town | Peter Quince | February 2010

It’s Carnival in 16th-century Florence, so for Stefan Bachmann’s production of Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio, the Duke Alessandro di Medici (Nicholas Ofczarek) trundles up onto the Burgtheater stage wearing a nun’s costume, with his cousin Lorenzo (Michael Maertens) hobbling on in a trench coat, drenched in night sweat. Musset, perhaps too famous for being a lover of the French woman of letters George Sand, seems to have already decided at the age of 24 (in 1834) that the 1800s were the Me Century. But he chose the Medicis as a magical medium for his wistful, witful caveat.

Lorenzaccio could be called a five-act Medici soap opera, written entirely in prose just casual enough to force comparison not only to Musset’s time but to ours. Darting his way through a myriad of intrigues involving poison, sexual violation, and the duke’s custom-made dagger-proof metal shirt, the renegade Lorenzo entertains us but never lets us off the hook: With him, we see that only an inside job can bring these fabulous monsters down, but once you’re inside it, it’s inside you, and brings you down with them. You had to be there.

These are people whose goal is to live, not die, for our sins. Within minutes, the smirking "nun" bares a Rubensian butt. When her Marchese (Jörg Ratjen) gallops off on business, the fetching Marchesa Cibo (Melanie Kretschmann) hurtles into a dangerous affair with Duke Alessandro, endorsed by the Church in the form of the Marchese’s brother (!) Cardinal Cibo (Sebastian Blomberg), who aims to blackmail them all the way to his own popedom. But she has both his and everybody else’s number: "If you won’t give me absolution, Father, I’ll go get it from another priest."

On a whoppingly long blue couch, the two cousins confer. Should or will Lorenzo procure his little sister for the duke’s delight? What, exactly, are cousins for? These inch towards each other along the cheap, bountiful upholstery, finally settling with a beatific handshake. Maertens’s paw completely disappears under Ofczarek’s painted fingernails: these cousins have just attained a harmony that lovers and siblings can only dream of. (Lorenzo to Alessandro, serenely: "You have no idea how easy it is to lie to the face of a jerk.")

Soon after, we realize that two libertines can gallivant for diametrically opposite reasons. In a 2000-word expliqué, Lorenzo pours out his weary heart to Filippo Strozzi (Martin Schwab), a closet republican family friend. Lorenzo may be a libertine, but his secret aim is to be the rule that proves the exception, or rather the exception that murders the rule. In fact he will kill the thing he loves, his unapologetically megalomaniac cousin. Maertens’ delivery, or release, of this credo—perfectly heated, perfectly resigned—may be the high point of his Burgtheater career so far. He extracts a bottle of red wine from the footlights, pours himself glass after glass, and lets his chips fall on us, the jury.

"First I told myself I’d kill Clement the VII, but there wasn’t time before I was banished from Rome."  Maertens’ mannerisms, including a palette of goofy laughs and crow-cawing shrieks, can be heard elsewhere as often as in Lorenzaccio, but surely no other actor could convey the terrible, precise finality of losing one’s political innocence as he does here.

"Ausschweifungen"--the German word for "excess" that also crops up every other page of Musset’s autobiographical Confessions of a Child of the Age (where he is made a virtuous man by George Sand before she dumps him)—suggests the unpredictable, unsafe swish of a stallion’s tail. Lorenzo painstakingly confides to Filippo that tail-swishing escapades at his cousin’s side have bankrupted him with ecstasy ("If you want to get to know a city, stay away from the dives"). Although murdering his cousin seems intended to redeem his gaudy 3-year rake’s progress, the act in fact gains meaning precisely because he digs both the debauchery and the cousin who put him up to it. Only love makes murder worth the effort.

Sheathed in a crude tutu of what look like huge tongue depressors, Ofczarek’s paunch swells with self-vindication as he struts for the royal portrait painter.  Perfectly pleased by his own displeasure, he snatches the paintbrush, retouches the painter’s canvas, and then decorates the churl’s face with his own oil paints. The direction draws on devices we’ve seen before and uses them masterfully, selectively, simultaneously merging and casting into relief Musset’s labyrinthine subplots.

Role-switching becomes a fascinating theatrical etude when Martin Schwab, as a Medici henchman, molts out of his thug’s black leather and into Strozzi’s cardigan and red socks, the while singing a ballad ("When I’m dead, bring my heart to my mistress") that thrillingly blurs the line from personage to personage. Ofczarek and Kretschmann, as bored members of the Strozzi clan at a family banquet, yank off each other’s wigs in a segue of lust, once again becoming the fornicating Duke and Marchesa as we swing into the next scene. Most telling is Bachmann’s promenade-denouement (to Rossini’s Gazza Ladra  overture), where Marchese and Marchesa Cibo (or rather Kretschmann and Ratjen, speaking as passers-by) glimpse themselves once again united in placid matrimony, warn each other of each other, and then smooch—as and unto each other—in a parody of voyeuristic political culture.

Satire is wittily suggested by silent carousers in horse masks delicately trotting upright across the coffee-colored, Spanish Riding School earth of Johannes Schütz’ mise-en-scene. But compared to the fatal drift of Renaissance power politics—in the end, Lorenzo has his throat slit in broad daylight even after "liberating" Florence from Alessandro—Bachmann and Schütz’ careful visual distortions are surprisingly refreshing. Waiting for Lorenzo’s sister in the buff, stippled with white paint from his very own sacrificial altar, this Alessandro makes a superb Vanillakipferl. (Apropos "buff": there is a Best Phallus and Best Supporting Phallus in this production.)

Instead of re-sheeting the sofabed for Alessandro, Maertens finds a roller and briskly paints the blue cloth up with white house paint, murmuring a plaintive tune. When Lorenzo and Alessandro cling to each other on the murder chaise, slithering in white paint and day-glo stage blood, political cynicism and idealism are united in a final osmosis of passion. Maybe that’s what cousins are for? If Musset himself fizzled out his fuse at both ends, this tableau makes his agony-cum-ecstasy worth it.

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