Mystery still hangs over the deaths in 1889 of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera in the Imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling. He was 30 and she was 17, and as soon as their bodies were found a cover-up started to protect both the Hapsburg Empire and the image of the happily-married Prince. The story has been told several times on film but Kenneth MacMillan's 1978 ballet MAYERLING for the Royal Ballet casts a gripping spell.
Needless to say the reality in 1889 was anything but what was reported at the time. History has revealed Rudolf to be a morbid death-obsessed womanizer who at the time of his death was riddled with syphilis and addicted to morphine. His politically expedient marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium left both miserable but his request that they separate was refused by his father Emperor Franz Josef - an act of gross hypocrisy as his father and mother, the Empress Elizabeth, lived fairly separate lives with their own lovers.
A former mistress of Rudolf was Empress Elizabeth's niece and lady-in-waiting Countess Marie Larisch who was a friend of Mary Vetsera's mother, and these two women who both craved advancement at court, actively promoted Rudolf's attraction to young Mary. She was a wilful, highly-strung teenager passionately in love with her Prince Charming (as she saw him) and would do anything for The Grand Gesture. That came on 31st January, three months after their meeting, when they were both found dead in his bedroom.
Marie left a letter full of fateful talk of them going into an uncertain beyond but they were going together. Needless to say, this was the last thought on the Hapsburg Empire's collective mind after their bodies were found: Mary's uncles were summoned to Mayerling and, propping her up between them in a carriage, was buried immediately in a nearby monastery cemetery, while Rudolf was mourned as having died from a heart rupture. Eventually a version of the murder/suicide was released but with the emphasis that the Prince's mind was deranged so the church allowed for his body to be buried in the Hapsburg burial crypt.
Kenneth MacMillan's brooding masterpiece opens with a moonlit burial, only when it is repeated at the end do we know this is the hasty funeral of pathetic Mary Vetsera. The ballet flashbacks to the wedding of Rudolf and Princess Stephanie but unsettling undercurrents swirl around the court as Stephanie is terrorized by the crazed Rudolf in their room. The second act has Rudolf making his wife accompany him as he tours the taverns drinking and womanizing, Stephanie leaving in distress when he dances with his ex-lover Mitzi Caspar who eventually hides him from a police raid; meanwhile Countess Larisch visits Mary and her mother and tricks the girl into believing that her destiny is to be Rudolf's lover. The act ends with the first tumultuous lovemaking of Rudolf and Mary.
The third act opens with a shooting party where Rudolf shoots a courtier dead who is standing near the Emperor (an incident that happened in reality) and while the Empress discerns the hand of Countess Larisch in the relationship, Mary and Rudolf decide on their fate. At Mayerling, the Prince's servant tries to entertain the couple as he has done before but stops when he realizes the couple are totally self-absorbed, fatally leaving the couple alone...
39 years after it's debut performance MacMillan's ballet is a darkly glittering masterwork; a driven, haunting work of tortured sexuality that leads inexorably to the grave. It's fascinating that MacMillan ends the first and second acts with Rudolf having violent sex but whereas the first act has Stephanie manhandled by Rudolf and cowering as he brandishes a revolver, in the second act Rudolf finds Mary a match for him, a match made in a dangerously out-of-control place. MacMillan's extraordinary choreography is still a hypnotic, thrilling thing to see.
The ballet, which is based on a scenario by Gillian Freeman, has been re-staged by Christopher Saunders, Grant Coyle and Karl Burnett and uses the original designs by the late Nicholas Georgiades. The lead roles of Rudolf and Mary were danced by Thiago Soares and Lauren Cuthbertson, and while Cuthbertson brought the wildly passionate teenager to vivid and thrilling life I found Soares to be quite uncharismatic and almost lumpen, I can only imagine the electric quality that more live-wire performers like Edward Watson and Steven McRae would bring to the role.
There was much more to be enjoyed in the supporting roles: Yuhui Choe played the distressed Stephanie well while Claire Calvert was a vibrantly sensual Mitzi Caspar, the real-life mistress of Rudolf who reported him to the authorities when he suggested a suicide pact. I enjoyed Tristan Dyer as the Prince's servant Bratfisch who has a delightful solo in the tavern and whose faltering repeat of it at Mayerling was very touching. However they were all outshone by the always watchable Itziar Mendizabal as the devious Countess Marie Larisch, the go-between for the lovers.
In real life, Countess Marie was ostracized by Empress Elizabeth when
her involvement in the deaths was revealed and she led a peripatetic
life, marrying often and living in various countries, always trying to
make money off of her involvement with the Hapsburg royalty.
MAYERLING was wonderful to see and stands as a tribute to the remarkable choreographic genius of Kenneth MacMillan, who tragically died of a heart-attack backstage at Covent Garden during a revival performance of the ballet in 1992.