Steven McRae as Prince Rudolf © Alice Pennenfather ROH

MacMillan’s choreographic genius: Mayerling

It was a fitting tribute to Sir Kenneth MacMillan, one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, that The Royal Ballet chose to open its 2022/23 season with his 1978 full-length ballet, Mayerling. This month it is the 30th anniversary of his untimely death from a heart attack backstage during a performance of this ballet, when he was only 63.

The ballet reveals the historical events that led to the double murder/suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and his young mistress, Mary Vetsera. It’s an epic tale involving many characters and his life unravels before our eyes, sinking into an ever-more fevered state of debauchery, syphilitic, morphine-induced insanity. In today’s terms, he would be described as a narcissist. A toxic perpetrator, incapable of empathy, with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Whilst it may be one of the most challenging roles ever created for a male dancer, you are unlikely to warm to him.

Photos © Alice Pennefather ROH

Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera and Steven McRae as Prince Rudolf

Opening with a gloomy prologue set in the cemetery at Heiligenkreuz we are swiftly transported to the opulent ballroom at the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna. Nicholas Georgiadis has created the most elaborate, sumptuous sets and costumes, saturated in luxurious fabrics and glittering unashamedly with ostentatious jewellery. The scene is that of Rudolf’s wedding celebration to the Belgian Princess Stephanie. Typical of narcissistic behaviour, he does not want to be respectably married to her and seeks to publicly punish and shame her. He is openly dismissive and flirts outrageously with her sister Louise (delightful Isabella Gasparini). Throughout the act, we are introduced to some of the main protagonists: Countess Larisch, a former mistress of Rudolf’s who in turn introduces Baroness Vetsera and her daughter Mary to him; Empress Elisabeth, Rudolf’s mother, unable to show maternal love for her son, and possibly the most complicated relationship which fuels his misogynistic attitude towards the other women in his life.  He clearly craves her attention though I’m not sure that this is the equivalent of an Oedipus complex – it’s more likely fed by her inability to display affection towards him.  Whilst the ballroom scene is lavish and the narrative is clear throughout, the most affecting scene is played out in a terrifying pas de deux between Rudolf and his young bride on their wedding night. Threatening her with a gun and violently assaulting her, it makes for compelling but uncomfortable viewing. Steven McRae as Rudolf gives us a man who is clearly unhinged from the start, but descends into complete madness in a most unsettling manner. The pas de deux with Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Princess Stephanie is brutal, chilling. O’Sullivan never puts a foot wrong, quivering with fear, she engages our full sympathy. Yasmine Naghdi’s Marie Larisch is a subtle interpretation, manipulative of course, but here depicting strong feelings for Rudolf, her elegant dancing always embracing the choreography with finesse.  Annette Buvoli as the Empress Elisabeth is perhaps a little youthful to be playing the mother of a 30 year old prince and yet she shows remarkable maturity and capability in the role. Her face and posture express, with great honesty, the full gamut of emotions in her scenes with Rudolf.

Act II is dominated by the tavern scene and delivers some first rate dancing from all concerned. Mitzi Caspar, a high-class prostitute, at this performance danced with immeasurable zest by Mayara Magri, is another of Rudolf’s conquests and his regular mistress, and he further humiliates his wife by bringing her to what is essentially a brothel. After Stephanie hurriedly exits, the depravity continues apace. Especially good were the four Hungarian officers: Luca Acri, Benjamin Ella, Joseph Sissens and David Yudes with Acri seemingly finding a new and exciting breadth to his dancing. The least engaging scene, although it is integral to understanding the relationships, is a recital by the opera singer Katherina Schratt (sung beautifully by Catherine Carby) to celebrate Emperor Franz Josef’s birthday. The impetus is momentarily put on hold while we are unwilling participants in this episode. The act concludes with the first intimate pas de deux between Rudolf and Mary and while it does not eclipse the final tragic duet of the last act, it is emotionally and physically charged in true MacMillan style.

Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera
Sarah Lamb as Mary Vetsera and Steven McRae as Prince Rudolf

By the time we reach the climax of Act III, we are strangely hooked on the drama, given that this has no happy ending and unlike Romeo and Juliet, there’s no love or romance involved. Sarah Lamb is ideally cast as Mary Vetsera. With her fragile frame and pretty, youthful looks she could easily pass for a teenager. Her obsessive infatuation with Rudolf is believable, her dancing impeccable. The evening though, as MacMillan intended, belongs to the Crown Prince and McRae carries it well. His well-documented injuries make it all the more astonishing that he can survive the multiple pas de deux and endless solos, with stamina and precision. If his technique is less sharp than it once was, he is still a formidable dancer and partner, and most importantly, he portrays this troubled character with absolute conviction.

Steven McRae as Prince Rudolf © Alice Pennenfather ROH

One other mention must be made for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Koen Kessels, which brings a full-bodied and rich sound to Liszt’s music. Even though the evening is long at 3 hours, MacMillan’s choreographic genius is at its finest in narrative ballets. There are endless things to admire and whilst I have watched many, many different casts since 1978, the interpretations never cease to intrigue and impress.

Deborah Weiss