United States Liszt, Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling: Artists of the Royal Ballet / Koen Kessels (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 7.7.2019. (JRo)
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan
Music – Franz Liszt
Arrangement and orchestration – John Lanchbery
Designer – Nicholas Georgiadis
Scenario – Gillian Freeman
Lighting – John B. Read
Crown Prince Rudolf – Thiago Soares
Baroness Mary Vetsera – Lauren Cuthbertson
Countess Marie Larisch – Itziar Mendizabal
Empress Elisabeth – Lara Turk
Princess Stephanie – Anna Rose O’Sullivan
Mitzi Caspar – Claire Calvert
Bratfisch – Paul Kay
Princess Louise – Beatriz Stix-Brunell
Emperor Franz Joseph – Christopher Saunders
Colonel ‘Bay’ Middleton – Gary Avis
Katharina Schratt – Molly Jane Hill
Four Hungarian Officers – Reece Clarke, Tomas Mock, Valentino Zucchetti, Luca Acri
Count Taafe – Erico Montes
Count Hoyos – Nicol Edmonds
Prince Philipp – Kevin Emerton
Princess Gisela – Annette Buvoli
Princess Valerie – Mica Bradbury
Loschek – Rudolf’s Valet
Count Larisch – Thomas Whitehead
A three-act ballet of operatic proportions, Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling has more violence, eroticism and outsized personalities than can be found in any Verdi opera. Influenced by the rise of the Angry Young Men playwrights of the mid-twentieth-century British stage, MacMillan painted his suffering characters with realistic and graphic strokes. There is none of the idealized, romantic ethos of nineteenth-century story ballets, but rather intense psychological investigation that often culminates in unbearable anguish.
Mayerling is based on the presumed murder-suicide of Prince Rudolf, heir to Emperor Franz Joseph and the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Their bodies were found at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling in the Vienna Woods in 1889. The ballet has as many mistresses, ex-mistresses, noblemen, noblewomen, ladies-in waiting and soldiers as War and Peace. With the sketchiest of program notes, it was a challenge, to say the least, to keep track of the dramatis personae.
Rudolf has a mother who pays little attention to his needs and an indifferent father; a bride, Princess Stephanie; an ex-mistress, Marie Larisch, who becomes the procuress of his final mistress, Mary Vetsera; and another mistress, Mitzi. The ballet begins on his wedding day when he shows his contempt for Stephanie by flirting with her sister and amorously conspiring with Marie Larisch. He then rapes his wife that night after threatening her with a pistol. And that’s just in the first 30 minutes. Scenes involving Rudolf’s self-absorbed mother and the demands of court life unfold and add depth to his character, but his overall cruelty to women is painful to behold. Diagnosed with syphilis, the real Rudolf may have felt the mental effects of the disease, but MacMillan is more concerned with the prince’s death wish brought on by his family and life at court than with any underlying physical cause.
Obsessed with death, Rudolf is rarely far away from a handgun, rifle, alcohol, morphine or the requisite memento mori, a skull. His sexual appetite is unquenchable. The role is a daunting one that requires the strength and stamina of an Olympic athlete and the acting ability of an Olivier to pull it off. Shocking in its frank depiction of sexuality when the ballet premiered in 1978 and still erotically vivid, the carnal pas de deux between Rudolf and his wife and mistresses were thrillingly choreographed and exhaustingly gymnastic but ultimately overwhelming. The level of intensity rarely flagged, and lighthearted moments were few and far between. Only Rudolf’s chauffeur and the chambermaids and whores were allowed a few occasions to cavort. MacMillan’s choreography suited the chambermaids, but the prostitutes’ bump-and-grind routine at a tavern felt like Bob Fosse crossed with Agnes de Mille and Marius Petipa.
Most of the choreography for Rudolf involves lifting and tossing his female partners above, below and around his body in complex and inventive steps. And when he isn’t lifting, he’s dragging them across the floor. Thiago Soares was dramatically convincing as the tortured prince and physically up to the task. What I missed in his performance was the buttery lyricism of a danseur noble, which should shine through even the violent excesses of the choreography.
All this was set to a medley of Franz Liszt’s greatest hits arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery and richly realized by local musicians under the baton of Koen Kessels. The music was propulsive in the manner of Liszt at his most rhapsodic and demonic and contributed to the frenzied action on stage. What struck me was the musicality of the Royal Ballet’s current female principals and soloists. It felt as though the lyricism demanded by a Frederick Ashton ballet was bred in the bone of every Royal Ballet dancer since the great choreographer’s tenure.
Lauren Cuthbertson portrayed both the lithe child of the first scene, introduced to Rudolf on his wedding day, and the lascivious teenager of the second act hungering for experience. The concept of her character seemed flawed – the motivation for such a young person’s corruption remained obscure. A hint was given through the willing consent of her mother and the scheming of Marie Larisch, but it was difficult to evaluate the role in terms of dramatic expression. As far as pure dance, Lauren Cuthbertson had a lovely line, beautiful feet and expressive arms and legs, embracing her dark desires as demanded by MacMillan’s choreography.
Dramatically, the clearest female portrayal was the character of Countess Marie Larisch. With Marie, MacMillan created the most three-dimensional figure in the ballet, superbly danced and acted here by Itziar Mendizabal. Though scheming and seductive, she was the only woman who seemed to love and care about Rudolf.
Other compelling female performances: Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Stephanie, whose body movements accommodated both the sorrow and brittleness of a neglected and brutalized wife; Claire Calvert as Mitzi Casper, the high-spirited, high-class prostitute, memorable in her pas de cinq with four soldiers; and Lara Turk as the Empress, convincingly haughty as the hypocritical mother of Rudolf.
As Bratfisch, Paul Kay was commendable in his explosive and impish performance, as were the four Hungarian Officers, Reece Clarke, Tomas Mock, Valentino Zucchetti and Luca Acri.
Costumes and sets by Nicholas Georgiadis were appropriately lavish but accommodated the dancers and never overpowered. The lighting design was everything it should be – clear yet sensual.
Whatever its faults, the numerous roles in Mayerling allowed the company to show off its principals, soloists and first artists in a sumptuous period ballet. The chance to see the Royal’s superb roster of talent in Los Angeles, where they haven’t performed in 24 years, was a singular and sought-after event.