Ballet Review: Mayerling (Royal Opera House, London)

The real-life Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary.

The real-life Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary.

Rating: ****

Based on a true story, Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s ballet after Gillian Freeman’s scenario is given yet another revival at the Royal Opera House. It’s name is taken after the hunting lodge where the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera were found dead in an apparent suicide pact. Little else is known about the circumstances leading up to the incident apart from allegations that the Emperor and the Crown Prince had an argument over the affair with the young Baroness.

Despite its bleak and bare prelude the first thing that strikes you is just how extravagant this production is, especially the sumptuous period costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis. You’re also initially treated to a wonderfully elegant choreography matching the high-romanticism of Franz Liszt’s music, selected, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. But as soon as you get comfortable with this familiar image of classical ballet the gilded veneer slowly peels away to reveal something unexpectedly bold, daring, and modern.

Macmillan manages to seamlessly blend archetypal ballet with more free and expressive movement that is both powerful and visually striking. For every part that is refined and traditional there is an equal part that’s ragged and dangerous. This is ballet unlike anything else, turning an art-form that is stereotypical dowdy into something fascinating.

Every step, turn, and lift of the choreography forms part of an incredibly strong narrative whilst simultaneously creating atmosphere and tension out of nothing. There isn’t a moment that is dull or difficult to watch. Indeed, Macmillan’s ability to tell a story through dance is so much so that Liszt’s music and Georgiadis’ set become almost superfluous, only serving to augment sense and scene. Everything else is in the dance; the sex is steamy, the violence shocking, and the despair devastating.

The jewel in Macmillan’s choreography is the surprises he leaves peppered throughout. Rudolf is arguably the most demanding and difficult male principal roles in ballet, and its not difficult to see why. Every so often there will be some incredible feats of strength and physicality that come straight out of the blue leaving you in breathtaking awe. But Macmillan never sets off all his fireworks at once meaning you never tire of these astonishing moments and neither can you predict them.

The only thing that stopped this evening from being perfect was Bennet Gartside’s unsure start, having stepped into the role after billed Johan Kobberg unfortunately left due to injury. His footing was a little unsure to start with, even though his ability to emote never faltered. As he became more comfortable with the role by the end of Act I he transformed into an impressive and superlative dancer who seemed to handle the role with tireless ease. The only other main issue was a very sloppy string section. There were more than a handful of moments where intonation and ensemble were completely absent. It’s an unexpectedly disappointing turn from what should be a world class orchestra.

But with star turns from the rest of the cast, especially Mara Galeazzi as doting yet disturbed Baroness Mary Vatsera and James Hay’s dizzying performance as Bratfisch, this is a lavish and wildly surprising production; ballet at its most beautiful and brutal.

Mayerling plays on selected dates at the Royal Opera House, London, WC2E 9DD, until 15 June 2013. Tickets are £5-£93. To book visit www.roh.org.uk.

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