Warning *historical spoilers* will follow!
The start of a new academic year for me also means the start of a new season at the Royal Opera House, and first up the for the both of us was Kenneth MacMillan’s classic ballet, Mayerling. As a rule, I prefer to keep unhappy endings out of my ballets, and so I was somewhat dubious about booking to see this ballet based on the real-life “Mayerling Incident”. However, the historical element and some serious red-velvet and golden-gilt withdrawal symptoms meant that this rule of mine simply had to be broken.
Created for the Royal Ballet in 1978, the story follows the unstable Crown Prince Rudolf (the only son and heir of Emperor Franz Josef) through the Austro-Hungarian court as it was in 1889. Forced into a political marriage to a Belgian princess, Rudolf is quickly introduced to a teenage Mary Vetsera (by his ex-mistress, Countess Marie Larisch no less). The following acts chart his growing obsession with the macabre through intense pas de deux’s with his wife, his mother and Mary, who seemingly shares, and to a certain extent encourages, his morbid fascination until the final climax and the shocking events at the Mayerling hunting lodge that led to the tragic deaths of both Rudolf and Mary. Add a healthy dose of drug use, sex and a charming visit to a notorious tavern, Macmillan’s ballet is not your usual family friendly Nutcracker and a tad more rock and roll than your average Swan Lake.
Mayerling starts where it ends – at a graveside, warning us not to stray too far from the edge of our seats, even as we are quickly (much to my delight) plunged into the dazzling and decadent. My good opinion is very easily bought, with the help of the costumes and sets which are as beautiful as you would expect. But Rudolf’s eye starts wandering in front of his new bride and before long the trouble suggested by the deep hum of Liszt’s music starts.
I wasn’t prepared for the level of violence in Rudolf’s pas de deux’s, but to see it was frankly exhilarating, and going from the yelps some audience members gave at each crack of a gunshot-everyone else was equally spellbound. The act one-bedroom pas de deux between Steven McRae and Meghan Grace Hinkis (Princess Stephanie, Rudolf’s bride) was incredibly well placed, given the furiousness of the piece. Where things go a bit awry for me is in Empress Elisabeth, Rudolf’s mother. The pas de deux’s with her son felt almost romantic rather than an expression of Rudolf’s need for maternal affection, and later when we see Elisabeth having an affair it seems to do nothing for the story. The act two brothel scene was an absolute riot, with the artists of the royal ballet seemingly having a marvellous time, especially Mayara Magri who as Mitzi Caspar (yet another of Rudolf’s mistresses) absolutely flew between the various Hungarian officers with grin on her face that could be seen all the way from the amphitheatre.
By act three, Rudolf’s descent into psychological darkness has been mapped marvellously by Steven McRae through all his interactions with the various women who twist and control him just as much as the Hungarian officers that whisper to him at every opportunity they have to further their own cause. I find that despite his very many flaws, I don’t hate Rudolf as much as I probably should and am in fact rather drawn to him. I am utterly intoxicated by MacMillan’s choreography, and McRae’s ability to be technically perfect and still a little bit rough around the edges, a recipe that is vital for this very human story. Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera is a wonderful match for her Rudolf-believably coaxing him closer to madness and death, and clearly enjoying exploring her newfound sexuality, as mistress of the crown prince. The earlier black pas de deux and the final few scenes are as visceral as they need to be, and I was completely unable to look away as Rudolf and Mary reach for the pistol together, and disappear behind the screens, the whole audience holding its breath, waiting for the gunshots to sound. And just like that we are returned to the graveside for the most brutal and (for me) the most affecting part of the ballet. Mary’s lifeless body is dressed and brought down from the coach she had been propped up in, ready to be buried. The red curtains draw down painfully slowly on the no longer empty grave in a manner that I don’t think I will ever forget.
The history behind Mayerling must appeal to even those new to the art form making it an ideal introduction for those who might find The Nutcracker just a tad too sweet, and it thrilled me beyond belief. Sign up for free to the Royal Opera House’s Young ROH programme and find out when you can see an encore screening.