Guest author Matthew Paluch watches The Royal Ballet in Mayerling and ponders on how the six main female characters shape Crown Prince Rudolf and his demise.
People always complain that ballet isn't accessible, that it's elitist. It would take a PhD and more to unpick all that needs unpicking concerning the proposed inaccessibility.
So let's do a simpler equation: My local coffee emporium now charges £3.60 for a Flat White. The Royal Opera House offer seats for £3, which means you've got 60p left over to put towards the much-needed coffee fund!
Is the £3 seat the best in the house? No. Will some of a more sensitive nature get a nosebleed? Probably. But you're in regardless and exposed to (some would say) the highest levels of culture out there.
Since the ROH reopened in 2018 with reconfigured public spaces and extended opening hours, the keyword is ‘open'. All in a major, and much needed push to “attract wider audiences to ballet and opera”. And the push isn't happening only in Covent Garden. This month the ROH launched ROH STREAM, a digital platform that allows for limitless streaming of the provided content for monthly (£9.99) or annual (£99.99) subscriptions. This initiative comes off the back of ROH Cinema. Starting in 2011, it sees live performances streamed out across the globe with audiences feeling a sense of connection through social media and associated hashtags.
I love the cinema experience. As a total bunhead, I'm familiar with a lot of the repertoire, so now I crave microscopic analyses of individual interpretations – both physically and emotionally. The cinema performances are amazing for this. They're filmed very well and give a sense of total immersion.
Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling is the first event on the ROH Cinema calendar for the 2022/2023 season. It streamed live on 5 October and on subsequent later dates dependent on local cinema scheduling. I trotted off to see the opening night cast Encore showing on 9 October at London's Brutalist Barbican.
Mayerling is one of MacMillan's many seminal works. It's performed all over the world – currently simultaneously at the ROH, Paris Opera, and Hungarian State Opera. With the Liszt score, Nicholas Georgiadis' designs, and the compelling, true narrative of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, one understands the use of the word seminal. Rudolf was the heir apparent to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who died in a suicide pact at the age of 29 with his lover, Baroness Marie Alexandrine “Mary” von Vetsera, an Austrian noblewoman who was just 17 at the time.
The Royal Ballet opened its live, and cinema season with a top-notch cast. So let's take our seats and see what Mayerling on the big screen has to offer…
Well, first of all, it works. It's well known how much of a film aficionado MacMillan was, so one feels confident in assuming he created with a cinematic lens in mind (for perspective purposes, rather than the loose premonition that Mayerling would be seen in a cinema some 44 years later!) And let's not forget that the proscenium lends well to the concept of the screen/fourth wall.
All the biggies have covered the opening night review-wise, so I'm aiming for something a little less conventional. Mayerling is one of the few ballets with a male character as the main protagonist, yet what will I do? Ignore him! Well not totally, but aim to find the role and character of Rudolf through the six women he encounters, and how MacMillan makes their traits choreographically understood.
Before going any further, Rudolf was clearly intoxicating (and intoxicated!). Did his position in society help? Surely, but nonetheless, he must have had a little something. Another MacMillan urban legend is that he used dancers who reminded him of the characters they were portraying. Those who knew and know the original cast members can probably vouch for this. I'd say it's screamingly obvious in The Prince of the Pagodas.
So how do these women shape Rudolf, and feature in his demise.
Princess Louise – a public dalliance (and new sister-in-law)
Poor Louise, the sister of Rudolf's new wife Stephanie, just came for the canapés. And she ended up being used as a very public pawn. Though the court pretends to not see what's unfolding before them as Rudolf forces her to dance with him. Typical aristos. MacMillan's Louise knows the situation isn't correct and spends the majority of the pas de deux in the very crowded ballroom asking for help to no avail. At a certain point she seems to cave. Perhaps deciding it's easier to go with the flow, rather than resisting. Interestingly MacMillan doesn't show this in an obvious way – it's subtle, through the eyes and subsequent connection of the two. I'm sure Louise was grounded for a while post ball!
Countess Marie Larisch – the enabler (and former lover)
Larisch is probably the narrator of the tragic story. She's either present or there in spirit throughout the ballet. She's a woman in need and her modus operandi is to control whatever she can, even if it means hurting herself in the process. We see this through the introduction of Mary Vetsera to Rudolf, and the countless attempts at trying to get him back for herself. All failing. But MacMillan gives Larisch a strength that deserves recognition. It's uncomfortable viewing, but her tenacity is quite addictive. The original Larisch was (Dame) Merle Park, a highly regarded dancer of bravery and attack. A remarkable present-day Larisch is Laura Morera. In the cinema introduction she describes Mayerling as a “play without words”, and boy is she an actress. Oscar-worthy I'd say. Her interpretation of MacMillan's Larisch bristles with intrigue and desperation.
Princess Stephanie – the obligation (and new wife)
Not an easy watch. It goes downhill for Stephanie even before it starts. One assumes the marriage was of aristocratic convenience, so Rudolf has an agenda from the very beginning: to disrupt. He starts immediately with public humiliation (Princess Louise) and then continues with abuse in private. MacMillan's original Stephanie was Wendy Ellis, and her take is one of putting up a fight. The bedroom pas de deux is a total rumble. What I see in MacMillan's choreography for Stephanie, especially in the bedroom pdd is bipolarity. There's a lift combination that's repeated twice that sees Stephanie lurch with all her might to escape the bedroom. She fails and then Rudolf hurls her onto his shoulder and she immediately turns to stone. It's horrifying because as humans we often associate total stillness with abject fear. Another brilliant moment is when Stephanie trembles, or convulsions spread throughout her body. Francesca Hayward conveys the total body anxiety and fear well.
Empress Elizabeth – the unrequited love (his mother)
Has anyone else watched The Empress on Netflix? It's a six-parter looking at the young Elizabeth (Sisi) from her aristocratic youth in Bavaria to the role of Empress in Vienna. I'm sure masses of research was done pre-filming, but is anything fool proof? Their take is of a young woman who disrupts (like Rudolf), who loves passionately (like Rudolf) and who speaks her mind. Clearly he was his mother's son. Perhaps that's the issue with their rigid, stifled relationship. Does she see too much of herself in him? To combat this, she seemingly allows nothing more than expected pleasantries. Rudolf however is like a dog with a bone, but this approach seems to worsen things. MacMillan gives his Empress a stiff spine, an axis with which to navigate the complicated court dynamics. A bedroom scene sees her relax in all-female company, but Rudolf arrives and up goes her vacant, cold veneer – an emotional armour of sorts. Would he have taken a different path with more empathy and support? Sisi remained none the wiser.
Mitzi Caspar – his vice (and ongoing mistress)
Most full-length ballets have a tavern scene or two. Intoxication allows for choreographic play and exuberance to unfold. Mayerling doesn't disappoint and allows the audience to encounter Mitzi. If you know the creator of the role, Laura Connor, then the MacMillan urban legend of real life typecasting is confirmed yet again. Connor is personality personified – effervescent. One understands why Rudolf would need a Mitzi in his life, especially outside the palace walls. MacMillan's Mitzi is a multitasker: she can keep the tavern punters entertained, flirt with Rudolf, and mingle in politics and potential coups all at once. I'm unsure though whether she's even aware of the potential dangers her dalliances could have. But gurl likes to party! Darcey Bussell was a good exponent of Mitzi, playing up the physicality of the role. But one can only imagine what Connor brought to the festivities. BOOM! In this cast it's wonderful to see Marianela Núñez dancing more sensually – her steadfast technique means she can really explore MacMillan's provocative play.
Baroness Mary Vetsera – his truth (and new addiction)
And so to Mary. I say ‘his truth' as that's what she presents in the ballet. Every time Rudolf has an idea of how things might go Mary is one step ahead. The ROH hosted an Insight event this month on Mayerling and Morera spoke of Mary and how she didn't see her as a victim. She argues that Mary knew exactly what she wanted, and it didn't stop her pursuit of it, regardless of the end result. MacMillan's Mary doesn't show a millisecond of doubt, which is rare for a character – most have a momentary foible, even if fleeting. Not this Mary. Even before things become ‘official' with Rudolf her intentions are clear and ironclad. Throughout the work she doesn't retreat. Skull? Bring it on. Gun? In ya face! Passion? By the bucket. Two words: Lynn Seymour (the original). Two more: Viviana Durante. What a role for the actress dancer capable of breadth and depth. Seymour was MacMillan's muse. Was Mayerling their peak? Anastasia?! Who cares. What matters is that the roles are still here for others to wrestle with and devour. And for us, whether in the theatre, cinema, or at home, to revel in the results.
Seeing their final pas de deux on the big screen was overwhelming. Ryoici Hirano as Rudolf was ruined. His portrayal of a tortured soul grew throughout the evening with a constant, perfectly balanced crescendo. Natalia Osipova as Mary was everything and more. Young, naive, inquisitive, assured, genuine, and heartfelt. MacMillan's Mary really does love Rudolf. In the end, on the precipice of their demise, she conveys deep concern but then realises what he needs is a companion, not sympathy. And the job is done.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and is currently on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.