London, Royal Opera House
19 April 2013
Dave Morgan: Royal Ballet in Mayerling – 45 pictures from 2 shoots/casts
The wedding party parade at the opening of Mayerling’s Act I resembled the almost-state-funeral of Margaret Thatcher: a Who’s Who of crowned heads, foreign dignitaries, politicians, relatives and children. Newcomers to the ballet could do with discreet Dimbleby name-checks – here’s the Austro-Hungarian imperial family, those two are Belgian royalty, this one is the Prime Minister, those are the bride’s sister and sisters-in-law, he’s the husband of the groom’s mistress, and so on, and on.
The important relationships become clear as the ballet unfolds (though it takes repeated viewings to identify all those involved). Helpfully, the ROH programme now provides photo portraits of the five main women in Crown Prince Rudolf’s life, along with the synopsis. The similarities between three of the women are deliberate. Countess Marie Larisch, Rudolf’s mistress, was a cousin of his mother, Empress Elisabeth, and apparently greatly resembled her. In Sarah Lamb’s multi-layered interpretation, Larisch provides the solicitude that Elisabeth withholds from her affection-starved son. Larisch has hand-picked Mary Vetsera as her surrogate, instructing her how to gratify Rudolf’s depraved tastes.
In MacMillan’s ballet, the tragedy is set in train by Empress Elisabeth (lovely Zenaida Yanowsky in the first cast). She is repelled by Rudolf’s pleas for love and understanding on his wedding night; even so, Yanowsky hints at the compassion she represses. That Elisabeth is capable of warmth she reveals in her affair with Bay Middleton (gallant Gary Avis), watched with aching envy by her son. But she shows no pity when she finds Larisch in Rudolf’s room as he dopes himself with morphine. By banishing Larisch, Elisabeth precipitates Rudolf’s downfall. Mary Vetsera will be the death of him.
Edward Watson’s physical flexibility as Rudolf serves as a metaphor for a man in extremis. He’s unhinged, pulled apart by his self-loathing and the demands made of him as heir apparent. Watson even looks like photographs of Rudolf, minus the moustache – slender, ginger, haunted-eyed. As a dancer, Watson can now control the demands of the choreography while implying that Rudolf is on the edge of losing his wits. His elongated arabesques draw a fine line between sensitivity and psychosis. Like the young man in Roland Petit’s Le Jeune homme et la Mort, Watson’s Rudolf is at the end of his tether: sex is a drug, suicide his only release.
Mara Galeazzi as Vetsera matches him fearlessly. She starts out a minx, imitating Larisch’s femininity, then loses all inhibitions, dementedly doom-eager. Galeazzi and Watson so trust each other that their final pas de deux is horrifying in its recklessness. At the end, we’re riven by the knowledge that avid Vetsera has become a nothing, her inconvenient corpse buried clandestinely. On the opening night, there was such a surge of sympathy for Watson’s Rudolf that he was taken by surprise during the curtain calls. Greeted by cheers, applause and stamping feet, Watson put his head in his hands in disbelief. Dazed, he raised his arms to acknowledge our ovation, and kissed the hands of his two leading ladies, Galeazzi and Lamb.
This formidable cast will be seen in a live cinema screening from the Royal Opera House on 13 June – Mara Galeazzi’s last performance on the ROH stage before her retirement. Laura Morera makes a game Mitzi Caspar, Emma Maguire a baffled, dismayed Princess Stephanie and Ricardo Cervera is endearing as the cab-driver Bratfisch, the only person who mourns Vetsera’s death. The Royal Ballet is rich in dance-actors who can turn supporting roles into interesting characters. Alastair Marriott’s Prime Minister has ways of finding out what’s going on; Jonathan Howells’ Count Larisch is no fool; Elizabeth McGorian’s socially ambitious Helene Vetsera connives with Marie Larisch to set her daughter up with Rudolf. Nobody is naive or innocent in this decadent court.