Guest author Jonathan Gray looks at Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling in London and Paris
|The Royal Ballet / Paris Opéra Ballet
|The Royal Opera House, London / Palais Garnier, Paris
|21 and 29 October 2022 / 25 and 26 October 2022
A secret burial on a rainy winter night; a glittering royal wedding at a decadent and corrupt Imperial court; a crown prince so starved of parental love and affection that he turns to drug use, political intrigue and promiscuity in an attempt to validate his life; and a suicide pact that ultimately signalled the collapse of an empire. It could only be one ballet – Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling, a masterpiece currently receiving performances in both London and Paris to mark the 30th anniversary of the choreographer's death.
It is a complex narrative work, based on historical fact, that demands the full resources of a large-scale classical ballet company, and through its many taxing roles – above all for the dancer portraying Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary – the ballet offers its cast a gallery of dramatic, fascinating characters to interpret. An immediate success at its premiere on St Valentine's Day in 1978, with a cast that included David Wall, Lynn Seymour and Merle Park, it is little wonder Mayerling has become a staple of the repertoire. It's the kind of work in which The Royal Ballet excels, and, indeed, a galaxy of fine dancers has offered their own stunning and individual interpretations since its creation.
Mayerling has also become a significant MacMillan work for another reason. During the first night of a major revival of the ballet in 1992, the choreographer died of a heart attack backstage at Covent Garden, and I well remember the shock of the audience when, at the end of the ballet, the then general director of the Royal Opera House, Jeremy Isaacs, stepped in front of the curtain to announce MacMillan's death. As if there could be any doubt as to what we had just heard, walking along Floral Street after leaving the theatre, there was an ambulance parked outside the Stage Door of the Royal Opera House. That memory still makes me shudder.
The Royal Ballet's latest revival of Mayerling opened at Covent Garden on 5 October (click here for Matthew Paluch's review), but there were other notable casts to catch, and there are further debuts still to be seen before the run of performances closes on 30 November. New to the role of Crown Prince Rudolf on 21 October was principal dancer Vadim Muntagirov, and he offered the audience an intriguing new interpretation. Muntagirov is hardly a ‘natural' for the role, and yet he drew deeply upon his innate danseur noble qualities and applied them to a characterisation that suggested a prince who was carrying on his shoulders the heavy weight of expectation. Trapped, bored and unhappy with his life at the Viennese court, he is also bored of his new wife, Princess Stephanie (whom he does not even look at whilst waltzing with her at the wedding ball), as well as his former mistress, Countess Larisch, whom Muntagirov suggests Rudolf was eager to finally cast aside.
Muntagirov gave us a prince who is already lost, and this impression was further emphasised during the chilling duet with his mother, the Empress Elisabeth (the excellent Itziar Mendizabal), his every attempt to reach out for maternal affection denied him, to the extent that Elisabeth finally covers her face with her hands, not because she is crying, but so she doesn't have to look at him. This pas de deux becomes the turning point in Muntagirov's portrayal of Rudolf, as he then sets himself on the destructive path that will eventually end in the murder of his 17-year-old mistress, Mary Vetsera, and his own suicide. His dreadful wedding night duet with Stephanie (Isabella Gasparini, vivid in her fear), during which Rudolf terrorises his wife with a gun, is a horrific outburst of pent-up anger and aggression, and his reliance on the ministrations of the conniving Larisch (Fumi Kaneko) and her introduction to him of Mary (Yasmine Naghdi – another fine debut), who is so wantonly obsessed she would agree to do anything for him, means the Prince's certain death.
These emotions were expressed with beautiful clarity by Muntagirov, and I admired the way he conveyed a sense of agony and vertigo as Rudolf's mental faculties decline – the dancing becoming disorientated and confused as MacMillan's choreography moves further and further away from classical steps into the realm of expressionism, like a kind of burning hysteria.
Four days later, the Paris Opéra Ballet danced its first-ever performance of Mayerling to a packed house at the Palais Garnier. The company has had to wait a while to get the production on stage – originally commissioned, I think, by former director Benjamin Millepied, the ballet had been scheduled to open in May 2020 but was postponed because of you know what. Set and rehearsed by Karl Burnett and Grant Coyle, every step of MacMillan's choreography has been faithfully reproduced, so much so it reminded you just how complex and demanding the ballet is. The Paris Opéra Ballet was also able to draw on the experience of one of The Royal Ballet's finest Rudolfs during rehearsals, as Irek Mukhamedov is now a ballet master with the company.
Sad to say, Nicholas Georgiadis' original designs, which look so magnificent at Covent Garden, were not as faithfully recreated by the production staff of the Paris Opéra as they could have been. The costumes were too glitzy (at least they looked as if they were from the front rows of the Orchestre, where all the critics were seated), and the fabric of the front curtain, before which a number of significant little moments in the ballet take place during the scene changes, and which in London is reminiscent of an old brocade curtain or a tapestry, appeared as if it had been bought straight off the shelf at Versace – something I'm sure Georgiadis would not have tolerated. In addition, the trunks and boughs of the winter woodland, which frame the set throughout the entire ballet, were much too solidly painted. The sets and costumes, as a whole, were heavy and lacking in subtlety.
What of the dancing? MacMillan's style, which comes so easily to The Royal Ballet (which, after all, has a 44-year head-start on the Paris Opéra Ballet in Mayerling), is not a natural fit for the French dancers, although they have found their own unique way to perform Manon, another MacMillan ballet (which returns to the repertoire in the French capital next year). The company made a good start dealing with the complexities of the many dramatic roles in the ballet, but, generally, they remained too careful with the choreography, never “letting go” and allowing themselves to abandon their bodies to the movement. I felt, however, they were quite brave in tackling a work that requires from them dancing so different to that in which they have been trained at the Paris Opéra Ballet School.
The first cast was led by Hugo Marchand as Rudolf. He is a tall man, good looking, with an imposing physique and an impressive technique. His solo during the wedding ball was beautifully taken, yet Marchand didn't appear to deepen his interpretation of the Crown Prince as the ballet progressed; the man was a strange mixture of innocence, sadness, possessiveness and cruelty, and Marchand seemed particularly to enjoy terrorising Stephanie, perhaps the only person in his life over whom he had complete power. Marchand has yet to show Rudolf's developing addiction to drugs and illness from venereal disease, some of his partnering was laboured, and in the final act I simply didn't believe the prince was driven to suicide because of his mental agony. Less romanticism is needed here, and more ugly realism.
As Mary and Larisch, Dorothée Gilbert and Hannah O'Neill were, I felt, too brittle, with Gilbert, in particular, dancing too much like a “vamp” to be convincing as a teenage lover. On the other hand, Laura Hecquet was excellent as the Empress, beautiful, cold, self-obsessed, yet revealing more warmth in the presence of her lover, Colonel Bay Middleton, who was performed with ultra-suave sophistication by Jérémie-Loup Quer. Marc Moreau gave the audience a star turn as Bratfisch, and Valentine Colasante as Mitzi Caspar (Mizzi in the French version of her name) came closest of all in capturing MacMillan's fluency of movement.
The company was more convincing on the second night, when Rudolf was danced by Mathieu Ganio. In the past, I have found Ganio slight in dramatic roles, but with Rudolf he really came into his own. Smaller in physique than Marchand, he nonetheless danced gloriously, and his partnering of the women was more confident and secure. This Prince is surer of himself as a man, but he is still a man with worries and troubles and, as with Muntagirov, the lack of maternal love has a significant impact on his character. Uneasy and uncomfortable at the royal court, Ganio suggested the only time Rudolf was ever happy was when he was alone with his friends at the tavern, where he could relax from all the formal protocol. Also like Muntagirov, Ganio was particularly effective in showing Rudolf's mental anguish and exhaustion in his solo during the Emperor's party, his falls and rolls to the floor and the clutches at the back of his head suggestive of someone on the verge of an epileptic fit. Here is a man in decline desperately looking for a way out. His final act was shattering and poignantly sad.
Ganio's performance was enhanced by the relationships he developed with his two co-stars, Ludmila Pagliero as Mary, and Hecquet, switching roles from Elisabeth to become Larisch. The two ballerinas demonstrated how both women know how to manipulate Rudolf to what they think will be their own advantage – for Larisch a constant presence in the life of the man she just can't let go, and for Mary a terrifying adolescent obsession with a man she thinks she loves. These delusional women were danced with superb conviction, adding greatly to the success of the evening. With performances continuing at the Palais Garnier until 12 November, and with further cast changes in Mayerling – though, sadly, not with François Alu, who has withdrawn from the production – it will be interesting to see how the company continues to grow in the work. Musically, both the Paris Opéra Ballet and The Royal Ballet benefited from fine playing by the orchestra of John Lanchbery's arrangement of music by Franz Liszt, conducted by Koen Kessels and Martin Yates respectively.
Back in London, The Royal Ballet marked the actual date of MacMillan's death 30 years ago with a splendid performance of Mayerling on 29 October that included Matthew Ball as Rudolf, Laura Morera as Mary and Mayara Magri as Larisch. Attending as a guest of the company, but not to review, it was wonderful to know that in the audience that night were members of the original 1978 casts of the ballet, including Lesley Collier, Laura Connor, Wayne Eagling, Wendy Ellis, Monica Mason and Alfreda Thorogood, as well as some of the dancers – such as Darcey Bussell, Matthew Hart, Nicola Tranah and Stephen Wicks – who had appeared in Mayerling on that fateful night back in 1992.
24 November 2022
As a short postscript to my earlier review of Kenneth MacMillan's three-act Mayerling in London and Paris, I would like to record here the excellent debut of The Royal Ballet's Marcelino Sambé as Crown Prince Rudolf on 24 November. It was a most promising performance, and Sambé certainly has the stamina not only for the difficult choreography, but also the exhaustingly complex pas de deux.
Beautifully danced and intelligently acted, he brought a child-like yearning for maternal love to the duet with the Empress Elisabeth (Itziar Mendizabal, superb and perfectly cast) that was very touching. I would like Sambé to suggest more strongly Rudolf's decline into drug addiction and mental illness in the second act, but, dancing with an excellent supporting cast that included the wonderful Francesca Hayward as Mary Vetsera, Sarah Lamb as a manipulative Countess Larisch (one of her finest roles), Isabella Gasparini a terrified Princess Stephanie and Mayara Magri a vivacious Mitzi Caspar, here was a performance by a young male dancer that was rich in future potential. Bravo.