In January 1889, at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary committed suicide with his 17 year old lover, Mary Vetsera. The tragedy was quickly covered up to protect the Habsburg dynasty and, as such, the ambiguous events of that night have become as much speculation as fact; the inspiration for several screen adaptations and, of course, Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet.
Nearly 40 years after its premiere, MacMillan’s “Mayerling” remains a heady, sexually charged evocation of this dark and desperate tale.
From the moment the curtain rises MacMillan conjures a world of deceit and intrigue in which each character has their own agenda. The opulence of Nicholas Georgiadis’ set design, with its chandeliers and plush fabrics, suggests a grand Baroque ballroom, but even these majestic surroundings can’t mask the tensions that are already present. The Habsburg court are gathered to celebrate Rudolf’s marriage to Princess Stephanie (here danced by Federico Bonelli and Meaghan Grace Hinkis), but despite the occasion most of the cast bear a bored, snobbish air. Rudolf soon embarrasses his bride by openly flirting with other women and, in a few short moments, we begin to understand the tangled web that lies behind the glamour of the Habsburg court.
MacMillan’s ballet is littered with roles that aid the court’s stuffy aesthetic—from the husbands who briskly escort their wives off stage, to ? Alastair Marriott’s serious, neatly bewhiskered Emperor Franz Josef and Rudolf’s cool and distant mother, the Empress Elisabeth, here elegantly danced by Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani.
The bright, brash life of the taverns in which Rudolf finds solace, the energy of the four Hungarian officers (Rudolf’s friends) and Rudolf’s cab driver Bratfisch (James Hay), offer a burst of warmth and life far removed from the tensions of the court. In the world of MacMillan’s ballet it’s not hard to understand the society Rudolf chooses to keep.
Beatriz Stix-Brunell is charming as Rudolf’s mistress, Mitzi Caspar. She flirts her way through her solo in the brothel, dancing with a light, sparkly coquettishness. Hay is also brilliant as Bratfisch. Neat and energetic, he flits through the allegro of his solos with ease. You wish that Hay had more opportunities to dance, but he makes the most of the role’s virtuosic solos.
Between these worlds is Rudolf’s former lover, Countess Marie Larisch. Olivia Cowley is delightfully scheming in the role, presenting a nuanced and considered portrayal of her character. Larisch captures the essence of the double-life most of the court lead, introducing Rudolf to Mary Vetsera, whom she is chaperoning. In Cowley’s hands, there’s a sense that Mary is just a convenient way for Larisch to remain close to Rudolf. Her duets with Bonelli are edged with longing, Cowley’s Larisch embracing the chance to melt in Rudolf’s arms, a seductive and knowing former lover.
MacMillan takes his time to establish his characters, and the Royal Ballet are clearly a company of dancers that understand this. They fully embody the roles created for them, carefully cultivating an air of intrigue and pretence that develops across the three acts. It may result in a slower first act, but it makes the tensions of the Habsburg court, and the circumstances that drive Rudolf and Mary to their dramatic actions in the second and third, all the more believable.
This considered characterisation is no more evident than in Laura Morera’s portrayal of Mary Vetsera and Bonelli’s Rudolf. Bonelli’s smug, conceited character of the opening gradually breaks as the ballet progresses, both his dancing and characterisation seeming to warm to the role. His turning point comes, notably, in the presence of Morera who is thrilling in the role of Mary. Here Bonelli finds that delicate, and heartfelt, balance between Rudolf’s aristocratic coolness and his passionate, tormented personality.
Rudolf’s treatment of Princess Stephanie, his indulgences and his general ineptitude make it hard to feel sympathy for his character but, as Bonelli gradually reveals Rudolf’s tortured soul, you begin to pity this anguished and wayward prince.
As Mary, Morera is utterly convincing and charismatic. Playful and spirited, she appears youthful but far from naïve. In Mary’s first encounter with Rudolf, Morera is bold and coquettish, a young girl ready to live the vision she has created for herself. It’s a neat narrative twist—and one of MacMillan’s cunning choreographic moments—when, in a direct reversal of Rudolf’s wedding night with the terrified Stephanie, Mary stalks Rudolf down with his gun. Here, finally, is a match for his desires and someone to share his morbid preoccupation with death.
Whether the real Mary was as wilful as MacMillan’s is of course open to speculation. Yet in this ballet it is in Mary that Rudolf meets his equal and, increasingly, his support. Morera captures that perfectly, ready to be both his lover and to offer the tenderness his distanced mother cannot give him. She builds seamlessly from the desire and excitement of her first encounter with Rudolf, draping luxuriously in his arms as the curtain falls, to the overt passion and physical desperation of their later duets.
It’s in these duets that the two leads come into their own. MacMillan’s pas de deux is always something to be admired, but the intricacy and inventiveness of the partnering in his duets for Mary and Rudolf is truly captivating.
Morera and Bonelli fully embrace the potential of this choreography. In their grappling encounters they seem to understand the nuance of each clasping hold, each reaching arm. In the final bedroom scene there is hardly a move between each lift as Morera is wrapped and tossed around Bonelli’s body. In some cases the sheer number of lifts would seem excessive, but here it becomes irrelevant against the portrayal of pure desperation and desire that Morera and Bonelli achieve. It’s movement made to be filled with emotion and they do so with a fraught, seething urgency, gripping and tearing at each other, their actions charged with sexual desire. Here, without question, we see two characters consumed by their reckless fantasies.
It is striking that Mary and Rudolf’s passion is the only warmth in this cold-hearted court, and that makes their act seem as defiant as it is desperate. Here, their deaths are a mutual pact, Morera encouraging Bonelli in their final scene.
From its tense opening this work is already running to its dramatic conclusion and, in the hands of this cast, the Royal Ballet deliver a sensitive and passionate portrayal of the Mayerling tragedy. The first cast may hold the company’s biggest names, but the drive, emotion and superb characterisation from this cast of dancers makes for a heady and memorable interpretation.