Mayerling, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, April 2017Posted on 29 April 2017
In January 1889, fifty years into the reign of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, his son and heir Crown Prince Rudolf died in an apparent suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge with his new mistress Mary Vetsera. In late 1916 Franz Joseph’s death after a reign of 68 years ended an era wonderfully brought to life by Joseph Roth in his novel The Radetzky March, and Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, with its marvellous designs by Nicholas Georgiadis, dramatises the milieu that made the Mayerling catastrophe possible.
The huge cast opening this new run, headed by the incomparable Edward Watson as Rudolf, was sensational, and the Opera House wisely includes a synopsis in the cast list, as the plethora of gorgeously dressed ladies can be hard to keep track of.
The emotional agony started with the Act I pas-de-deux between Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb, lovely as Rudolf’s ex-mistress Countess Larisch, lady in waiting to his mother the Empress. Stylishly portrayed by Zenaida Yanowsky, her difficult encounter with her son well exhibited the family tensions, and the subsequent consummation of his marriage to the innocent Princess Stephanie, beautifully portrayed by Francesca Hayward, showed huge physicality after terrifying her with a revolver and human skull.
In the Act II tavern scene the fine solo by Alexander Campbell as Bratfisch emphasised the demi-monde ambiance of the setting, with Marianela Nuñez showing elegance and provocative charm as Rudolf’s current mistress Mitzi Caspar. Later in the act for Franz Joseph’s birthday celebrations, Gary Avis exhibited great style as Colonel ‘Bay’ Middleton, the Empress’s lover, catching her with effortless one-handed charm in her pirouettes as the two of them exhibited expressive emotions in their pas-de-deux. Yet as the scene progresses, Liszt’s music, so well conducted by Martin Yates, conveys a sense of impending doom before it dissipates in erotic streams of passion during Rudolf’s first private meeting with his new love, Mary Vetsera, brilliantly danced by Natalia Osipova.
The Act III scene between Rudolf and Countess Larisch was beautifully moving, but all is soon lost. Mary Vetsera can only look on as Rudolf descends into agony, before their full-throttled pas-de-deux showed an apparent spontaneity that transported us to the final scene with moments of death that are screened from sight.
We return in the end to the rain-drenched cemetery nearby at Heiligenkreuz, first seen in the Prologue. A dark ballet indeed, brought to life by the Royal Ballet at its best.
Performances continue with various casts until May 13 — for details click here.