Review: Royal Ballet - Mayerling - Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 15 June 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 22 April 2013

Royal Ballet - Edward Watson & Mara Galeazzi in 'Mayerling'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 19 April

If ballet came with the kind of levels that categorise the complexity of a computer game, then Mayerling would need the most advanced tag possible. For a new audience, without the benefit of a significant prior history lesson to explain the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it presents a confusing array of characters. The central role of Crown Prince Rudolf is amongst the most draining of all male roles in the ballet repertory with no less than six women to partner (four in the crowded scenes of the first act alone). Rudolf is sexually intimate with four of them; another is his mother, the Empress, who is also having an affair – as is the Emperor – and all this distinctly un-courtly love in the House of the Habsburgs provides enough plot-lines to bamboozle all but diehard balletomanes or historians.

Impenetrable though the narrative may seem at first sight, it is well worth perseverance because the truth of these events at Mayerling (the name of the hunting lodge where Prince Rudolf and his final paramour, Mary Vetsara, ended their lives); and the angst-ridden central character’s fascination with sex, drugs and death (Rudolf was addicted to morphine, probably as a respite from the pain of his syphilitic condition) provided choreographer Kenneth MacMillan with the subject-matter to make a ballet of the darkest Expressionism imaginable. An enforced marriage, distaste at his parents’ affairs and an unrequited desire for maternal affection contribute to Rudolf’s downward spiral of emotional degradation. And then there is the political intrigue. Secret police and spies are everywhere; and while the political cauldron of the Balkans simmers, the issue of Hungarian independence boils over. MacMillan throws all of this into his drama; from Rudolf’s post-coital morphine injections to the continual whispering in his ear from the Hungarian Officers at the Habsburg court.

Rudolf is a role with no hiding place as the character is onstage throughout 10 of the ballet’s 11 scenes, and performs physically demanding, highly-charged pas de deux that end each of the three acts. Edward Watson – freshly nominated for a Prix Benois de la Danse – is in the form of his life and he begins with the advantage of a certain physical resemblance to Rudolf. Now approaching 37, Watson has worked hard to gain the physical strength needed for so much exhausting partnering and he has the maturity to handle this deep dive into the demanding depths of drama. His interpretation is of a man buffeted by events and worn down in public but demented and predatory in the privacy of his own bedchamber. The scene with his young bride, Princess Stephanie of Belgium (a demure Emma Maguire), on their wedding night portrayed a terrifying ordeal for the young woman without a scintilla of inhibition from either dancer. Even a mistake in the choreography is made to look as if it were intended; such is the violence and wretchedness of their duet. Elsewhere, particularly in the opening scenes of Act I, the effort of getting so much difficult choreography right is occasionally plain to see and Watson will suddenly and belatedly extend an arm, as if he has just remembered to do it. But, in the crucial scenes – especially with his mother (the Empress is read with a haughty grandeur veiling a coquettish inner self in a brilliant cameo by Zenaida Yanowsky) and his various mistresses, Watson is both forceful and malevolent in his portrayal of a man standing on the precipice of life, staring into the void below.

Sharing Rudolf’s nadir of life expectancy is the teenage Mary Vetsara, played with a youthful zest melted into obsessive love by Mara Galeazzi. She rolls back the years to make us truly believe in the young girl plunging headlong and willingly into oblivion. This will be her final role at the Royal Opera House, since Galeazzi retires with a farewell performance as Vetsara on 13 June and what a role for her to end on! Between them, Watson and Galeazzi have 40 years’ of services as dancers at The Royal Ballet (she joined in 1992; he in 1994) and they embody, heart and soul, the company’s indisputable strength in the dramatic tensions of narrative ballet. Mayerling is the ballet that draws this out perhaps to its fullest extent with so many solo performances that are biographical in nature and the company rises to this test in superlative form and at every level throughout the cast.

It would be wrong also not to credit the musical and design contributions to Mayerling. John Lanchbery wrote that he spent the most exhausting but enjoyable month listening to the output of Franz Liszt in order to develop and orchestrate a score that is absolutely suitable for its purpose; and the designs of Nicholas Georgiadis are an imaginatively detailed representation of late nineteenth-century Vienna. Sadly, none of the three creative geniuses who collaborated with such purpose and impact to bring this ballet to the stage are still alive but the fact that the ballet was successfully performed in Moscow for the first time just a few weeks ago (by the Stanislavsky Company) is evidence of their enduring legacy. Notwithstanding its export potential, I expect Mayerling to live on through many more generations of dancers at The Royal Ballet.

There is enough powerful action to appeal to the senses even without a detailed appreciation of the storyline: the two big expressive pas de deux for Rudolf and Mary that conclude Acts II and III are stunning examples of the passion in MacMillan’s choreography at its very best. I was amused to pull out a programme from February 1978 (a performance just a few days after the premiere) and to see that the ballet’s synopsis and the main programme features are repeated word-for-word in the programme for this 2013 season. Apart from my first thought being to hope that the authors are getting repeat fees, 35 years after writing their original notes, it seemed to me that their writing does the job so well that no revision has been necessary and – in every sense – this is analogous to the ballet itself, which remains a complex, but effective, expression of epic, narrative story-telling through dance that has not been bettered.

In rep until 15 June 2013

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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