My visits to the Royal Opera House are usually marked by two distinct feelings: the first, upon entering the venue and during the champagne-guzzling intervals is a creeping dread that everybody is a regular except for me. The other more wondrous aspect of a night at the Royal Opera House is inside the house itself, when the orchestra has finished tuning and just as the lights begin to dim, when I am almost completely sure that the world onstage is truly apart from the overwhelmingly red and gold one that I am sitting in.
This feeling is only amplified in the Royal Ballet’s thrilling revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1978 ballet Mayerling. One of his most richly theatrical and well known works, the ballet has also been widely regarded as one of the most darkly psychological and intricately emotional ballets ever choreographed. A sense of foreboding is established from the moment the curtain rises, with the low hum of Liszt’s periodically appropriate score setting the tone for the introductory scene of a secret burial during a storm. The ballet depicts the time leading up to the Mayerling Incident, in which the tormented Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary commits murder-suicide with his seventeen-year-old lover Mary Vetsera in 1889. It is a wonder that the ballet even exists, as the first scene alludes to the thorough court cover up which involved Vetsera having a broomstick shoved down the back of her dress to make lifeless body appear upright in the carriage ride to her secret burial.
MacMillan’s syphilitic, addictive, and sadistic Prince Rudolf distorts and subverts the usual placid, flaccid, and stalwart fairytale Prince that so often appears (and most likely bores) in tradition ballet fare. Edward Watson’s fervid evocation of Rudolf is hypnotic in every gesture: a dark, mangled inner world is evident whether he is impetuously flicking his wrist or sending his terrorised young wife Princess Stephanie (danced with a brilliant thoroughness of character by Francesca Hayward) flying over his head in one of Macmillan’s characteristically aggressive pas de deux. The fact that Rudolf appears in seven different pas de deux with six different ballerinas is not only a testament to the breadth of his tangled relationships with multiple women: his mother, Empress Elizabeth, skilfully depicted by the soon-departing Zanaida Yanowsky, his former mistress the Countess Larisch, complexly delivered by Sarah Lamb, his cabaret entertainer mistress Mitzi Caspar, danced by the effervescent Marianela Nuñez (the only relatively unscathed female in the plot) and his obsessive and eventually deadly new mistress, given a dark and sadistic edge by Natalia Osipova in her debut as Maria Vetsera. On a more practical level, it makes it the most physically and psychologically strenuous role in ballet, and definitely well-deserving of its dramatic conclusion.
Just as the ballet opens and concludes cyclically with the scene of the secret burials, MacMillan’s distinctly dark style permeates throughout the ballet: known for his scenes of rape, the pas de deux are potent, erotic, and acrobatic— one of the most notable physical formations being when Rudolf slings Vetsera over his shoulders and kisses her fervently, her legs extending to contort the shape of their embrace into a gun. In what could be described as balletic soliloquies, Watson dances in circles, taking on guarded and defensive postures as well as grabbing his head in a gesture that reads plainly as utter derangement. The ballet is not without its lightness however— the second act opens to a cabaret set, full of smoke, sleaze, and pure entertainment. Perhaps one of the productions greatest achievements is a scene without movement: an opera singer entertains the Austro-Hungarian court as Rudolf broods to the side, and for a moment the stage is turned into a very living portrait of the oppressive court life.
Mayerling is ideal for ballet lovers, but would also be a thrilling introduction to those new to the ballet, as MacMillan’s raw eroticism and psychological depth extends far beyond knee-jerk ballet knowledge such as The Nutcracker or Coppelia. It runs until the 13th of May and if you sign up for free as an ROH student, tickets are as low as £10— leaving no excuse not to experience it once for yourself! Or four times, if the madness has gripped you as much as it has me.