Life & Culture

Mayerling ballet review: As compelling a ballet as you will ever see

Joy Sable revisits Kenneth MacMillan’s dark masterpiece, giving it five stars


Royal Opera House | ★★★★★

No matter how many times I have seen Mayerling – and it is quite a few – I never fail to leave the Royal Opera House shocked and moved by the end of this disturbing ballet. Such is the power of Kenneth MacMillan’s portrayal of one of the most devastating episodes ever to hit a royal family. Forget the woes of the House of Windsor; the tragedy that hit the House of Habsburg in January 1889 when Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary shot his 17-year-old mistress, Mary Vetsera and then killed himself puts other, more recent royal scandals in the shade.

Created for the Royal Ballet in 1978, Mayerling is now performed around the world by various companies and is back on the Opera House stage on the 30th anniversary of MacMillan’s death.

The discovery of the bodies led to an almighty government cover-up, but we now know – more or less – the truth behind what caused Rudolf to embark on his terrible actions at the hunting lodge at Mayerling. Forget the romanticised films, television programmes and other depictions of this story, MacMillan’s take on the narrative is far darker. His Rudolf is a gun-obsessed, syphilis-ridden man bent on self-destruction, hooked on drugs. (The guidance on the ROH website says the ballet is suitable for audiences aged 14 upwards for good reason…this is no Nutcracker.) Caught up between the various women in his life and hating a court filled with political intrigue and hypocrisy, it is no wonder he self-destructs so spectacularly.

This season audiences are treated to several different casts in the leading roles. At the performance I saw, Ryoichi Hirano’s Rudolf started out as cold and unfeeling towards his wife (the always watchable Francesca Hayward), progressing to an emotional and physical disintegration which was truly heart-rending.

As Mary Vetsera, Natalia Osipova was flirtatious and wonderfully girlish at the start before she unlocked her passionate nature in the complex and erotic pas de deux with Hirano. These dances were the highlight of the evening; jumps soared, lifts verged on the dangerous. It was breathtakingly beautiful and reckless at the same time.

Marianela Nunez sparkled as Rudolf’s mistress, Mitzi Caspar, while Laura Morera was outstanding as Marie Larisch, another lover who engineers his meeting with Mary Vetsera, leading ultimately to the doomed rendezvous at Mayerling. This dramatic work remains as compelling a ballet as you will ever see.

Mayerling is at the Royal Opera House until 30 November

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