Guest author Matthew Paluch sees Mayerling at The Royal Opera House with Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward
|Company||The Royal Ballet|
|Venue||The Royal Opera House, London|
|Date||24 November 2022|
Mayerling is everywhere, on stage and in print… and the coverage continues. On Gramilano alone we've had an extensive review by Jonathan Gray looking at the (Crown Prince) Rudolf debuts of Vadim Muntagirov in London and Hugo Marchand and Mathieu Ganio in Paris (though, for the Paris company, presenting Mayerling for the first time, there were debuts for the entire cast); and I had a look at the female roles and how they impact Rudolf and his journey. Now I'm back again with the honour of watching another two (important) London debuts: Marcelino Sambé as Rudolf and Francesca Hayward as Baroness Mary Vetsera.
I will state the obvious: Mayerling is a Kenneth MacMillan masterpiece with massive support from the Franz Liszt score and Nicholas Georgiadis' sets and costumes, and from its 1978 creation at the Royal Opera House and subsequent 44 years of rehearsal, observation, reflection and general honing, a very solid framework has been constructed for ongoing performances, and the coaching of new artists in the roles.
The house had a buzz last night, which isn't always felt. There was anticipation in the air that reminded me of the Guillem era – potentially exciting times. We were to witness another two pivotal debuts from dancers who very much represent the new generation of principals at the Royal Ballet and beyond, in a multitude of ways.
Hayward is the (ongoing) epitome of a Royal Ballet dancer: understated yet blindly dazzling in both speed of movement and stylistic form. She's already wrestled with the majority of the repertoire and proven herself as a dramatic presence. I saw her in a studio rehearsal for MacMillan's The Invitation and remember being very aware of both her physical and mental understanding of the complex narrative work. Sambé is known for his technical strength and performance panache, and he's thrilling to watch – though would he prove to be a headline, dramatic, actor-dancer?
I'm going to start at the end – don't worry, no spoilers – which will set the scene. When the curtains parted and Sambé took his solo reverence the house went berserk. And rightly so. We were in the presence of a new, extraordinary Rudolf as Sambé's attributes as a dancer are perfectly aligned with the role.
Some may disagree, but I personally believe that expression in dance is inherent in the movement itself, rather than something that's applied on top. Of course, individual dancers have individual interpretations of the same role, but it's the narrative that inhabits the choreography. And if a dancer trusts this theory, then they will become the character. This is what Sambé did. His physicality came into its own with the immediacy of his natural movement quality working so well that it made everything feel genuine. In the moment. Real. I propose he showed us more of the actual choreography – through a crystalline execution – than others have to date and consequently we saw more of the character, and the overall narrative journey.
His opening solo in the ballroom felt a little tense, with the odd nervous jitter, but his thinking was evident. He'd clearly done his homework and thought about how he wanted to connect with the other characters to deepen his idiosyncratic communication and it came across early and strong, with Gary Avis as Emperor Franz Joseph, Rudolf's father, helping no end with this tactic.
The fireworks scene solo in the second act was an astounding moment. At this point, Sambé's Rudolf became animal-like in his movement as if being human wasn't enough to communicate his mindset. He conveyed a feral, haunted sense of panic like he was visibly drowning in his own existence. The pressures from all sides finally becoming too much.
There was also some brilliant pas de deux work to savour.
With Princess Stephanie (Isabella Gasparini) he showed the ugly, violent side of Rudolf, taking full advantage of a rare situation that he was expressly in control of. Gasparini did well but needs to develop the physicality of her Stephanie. At times it felt like the emphasis was on form rather than intention.
With his mother Empress Elisabeth (Itziar Mendizabal) I saw far more tussle than seen previously. This seemed to heighten her coolness when she finally managed to extract herself from his desperate grappling. He portrayed a wrecked, abandoned offspring.
Sarah Lamb as Countess Marie Larisch was on another level, and rightly so, as the role is a total gift. Narratively, choreographically, and musically. Her first entrance was a major moment. Part of the Court conveyor belt entering the ballroom she arrived and looked far into the auditorium and as she did her luminous face caught the light and we just knew: here comes trouble. In the best possible sense. Larisch, and Lamb doing her are a heady concoction of elegance, desperation, stirring and regret. It was very satisfying seeing Lamb do a role truly concerned with characterisation. It showed her full scope as an artist.
And Francesca Hayward as Baroness Mary Vetsera… what to say? Sambé's Rudolf has met his match. Hayward was magnificent throughout. In her first three scenes she offered us child, seductress, and besotted novice, all totally embodied and believable. Her dancing was what we've become accustomed to: refined, precise, musical, and natural above everything else.
And when with Sambé… someone grab a fire extinguisher! They, were, scorching. The bedroom pas de deux in Act Two is multi-layered and they both wrestled well with the power and sexual dynamics interwoven within the choreography. It was riveting stuff. Hayward dancing so big, more than I've seen from her before. There were moments when things felt a little unsteady, but it simply heightened the experience. I also noticed how expressive Hayward's mouth was, whether communicating pleasure or pain. Another element of realism in play.
The gun pas de deux in Act Three was also super with both channelling the focused bewilderment one imagines the moment called for in reality. Rudolf has a repeated sequence of pose into an arabesque turn that continues into a multiple pencil turn. It's physicalising his mental instability – MacMillan (and consequently Sambé) understand that Rudolf wanted to spin himself into complete oblivion.
The final suicide pas de deux was superb, but frustrating musically. The conductor Martin Georgiev (also a debut) was seemingly conducting a concert rather than a ballet performance and by this point he'd already made two or three major boo-boos where he'd paid little attention to what was happening on the stage, and subsequently some very connected choreographic and music moments just didn't happen. MacMillan structures his big pas de deux with visual suspension – physical rise and fall. The couples tend to spatially pull away from each other before they launch into major lifts or travelling sequences, but Maestro Georgiev was off on his own tangent which meant that Sambé and Hayward couldn't make the most of the elongated, emotive preparations which seemed a big shame. They coped splendidly, and I'm sure very few people noticed, but I sensed that the speed of the music became their main focus with the need to get all the steps in, rather than contemplating what they could do with the choreographic ‘space' (individual interpretation) in the moment. It felt like an element of their in-performance freedom was taken away from them which doesn't seem fair.
In the same pas de deux there was a moment that I'll never forget: Sambé's Rudolf seemed to have some kind of physical reaction or spasm in relation to what was happening. Be it the emotional roller-coaster or drug-fuelled physical turmoil, but out of nowhere he stopped abruptly with a terribly shocked, pained expression as he reached out for the back of his thigh. It was like a bolt of lightning had struck him, and he keeled over as he stumbled away into the next drastic movement phrase. It was a truly brilliant moment – intense dance drama when things were already at the end of their tether. I'm sure MacMillan would approve.
Seeing the Royal Ballet perform MacMillan is an honour. There's such understanding throughout the work with everything feeling purposeful and nothing reading as pastiche. All the corps danced marvellously, likewise the four Hungarian Officers: William Bracewell, Calvin Richardson, Leo Dixon and Benjamin Ella. They, specifically, gave us some of the most beautifully executed temps levé in first arabesque I've ever seen. It seems irrelevant, but when simple work has that kind of vividness it confirms the overall level of work.
Other performances to note are Mayara Magri as Mitzi Caspar, Rudolf's friend and ongoing mistress. Magri worked the complex character well and danced with equal control and frivolity. Though I wondered at times if her port de bras needed a little more sensuality from the elbow through to the wrist. Taisuke Nakao did very well as Bratfisch. He's a beautifully dynamic dancer, but to grow into the role he needs to develop the pliability in his spine and find more jazz-infused intention through the movement (Matthew Hart being a very good reference point.) Mica Bradbury offered some big dancing as Princess Louise in Act One, and I kept finding myself watching Nadia Mullova-Barley as Princess Gisela who's an arresting dancer and really understands the essence of the choreography. One to watch out for I'd say.
It was a magnificent night full of dazzling performances – one can hardly imagine where Sambé and Hayward will potentially take these roles in the future.