Is this ballet for you?
Go if: You are tired of white ballets and of seeing male dancers perennially overshadowed by the ballerina. Mayerling, a tale of a crown prince’s descent into madness and murder, definitely puts the man on the spot. Think Hamlet with guns in lieu of swords & added drugs and you get a ballet that is as hard rocking as they get.
Skip if: You are not fond of Kenneth MacMillan’s dirty & grim ballets or very complex plots – there are so many characters involved that we strongly advise you do your homework before attending a performance (see our character diagram below). It also goes without saying that Mayerling is not a ballet for the kids. Nor for the chaste.
Dream Casts: Edward Watson/Johan Kobborg
We like Ed Watson for his marvellous innovative lines in MacMillan ballets and Johan for his technical feats and unrivalled acting skills. Mind you, Ed’s acting is quite something too.
Mayerling is a ballet in three acts bookended by a prologue and epilogue, choreographed in 1978 for the Royal Ballet by Kenneth MacMillan and based on the true story of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf who forged a double suicide pact with his mistress at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling in 1889. Known as the “Mayerling Incident” this chapter of history is forever shrouded in mystery and intrigue, having spawned various dramatizations to the stage and on-screen (the most recent being “The Illusionist”, a Hollywood movie with loose connections to the episode).
Rudolf, and his young mistress Vetsera seemed ideal study subjects for Kenneth MacMillan: two flawed, immoral and uncompromising soulmates. But before working on the choreography, he asked writer Gillian Freeman to provide him with a script (a rare practice in Western ballet) and conductor John Lanchbery to arrange a score for a list of dances which were then matched to 40 compositions by Franz Liszt. For this reason, the ballet may, on first view, seem like a string of episodes rather than a seamless whole, although it is undeniably a lavish and detailed costume drama.
The story is told through a series of physically grueling pas de deux between Rudolf and the many women in his life, with many moods ranging from desire to rage, from obsession to full madness. It is one of the most demanding roles created in British ballet for a male dancer requiring a high level of technique and stamina coupled with superb acting skills. Mayerling’s main selling point lies in its challenge to the idea that ballet is stuck in a world of tiaras and tutus and of fairytale princes, as Prince Rudolf is ground-breakingly portrayed by MacMillan as a depraved drug addict, sick with venereal disease, and his mistress Mary Vetsera, as a reckless and socially ambitious groupie. The court around them is rife with corruption, immorality and hypocrisy, the Emperor and Empress leading by their bad example (both having open affairs) but somehow imposing morality on their son.
Unlike Manon and Romeo and Juliet, which have become two of the most successful MacMillan export products and part of the ever more globalized repertoire of various ballet companies around the world, Mayerling is a work which is kept generally within the confines of the Royal Ballet, not only because of the controversial nature of the piece, but also due to the fact it requires a company with very strong theatrical roots (such as the Royal Ballet’s) to make the essentially mime-less storytelling clear and compelling to the audience.
Prologue: the curtains open to reveal the low key burial of Mary Vetsera at Heiligenkreuz in the dead of the night.
A flashback takes us to the ballroom at the Hofburg Palace where the wedding of Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie is being celebrated. To the court’s dismay Rudolf flirts openly with his sister-in-law, Princess Louise and later with Mary Vetsera to whom he is introduced by her mother and by Countess Larisch. Their mutual attraction is evident but this brief encounter is interrupted by four Hungarian officers who want to enlist Rudolf’s help in their political/separatist cause. Countess Larisch returns and attempts to rekindle the old flame of the past relationship with Rudolf, but the Emperor discovers them and orders an unapologetic Rudolf to return to his wife, whom he terrifies with rapist antics and a loaded revolver in their marital bed.
Rudolf has forced his wife to accompany him in an evening of debauchery. In disguise Bratfisch, Rudolf and Stephanie arrive at a seedy tavern. As Stephanie leaves in disgust, Rudolf turns his attention to Mitzi Caspar and to his new friends the Hungarian separatists. A police raid sends people fleeing while an increasingly mentally unstable Rudolf suggests to Mitzi that they should commit suicide together. Prime Minister Taafe enters and Rudolf hides. Mitzi, relieved to escape Rudolf’s madness leaves with Taafe, letting him know that Rudolf is hiding as they exit.
Countess Larisch finds Mary Vetsera at home contemplating a portrait of Rudolf and takes a pack of cards telling Mary’s fortune, assuring her that her romantic dreams will come true. Mary gives her a letter to pass on to Rudolf.
During Franz Josef’s birthday celebration Count Taafe confronts Rudolf with a political pamphlet. Rudolf watches with bitterness and anger as his mother openly offers a portrait of the mistress Katerina Schratt to his father and then as the Empress seeks the attentions of her own lover. Countess Larisch uses the opportunity to tease Rudolf with Mary’s letter.
The Empress discovers Countess Larisch with Rudolf in his apartment and dismisses her; unaware that Mary is waiting outside. Mary joins Rudolf, who sees in her a potential recruit for his double suicide campaign. In the hunting lodge at Mayerling Rudolf makes passionate love to Mary, clearly unstable he attempts to calm himself with an injection of morphine – he embraces Mary then shoots her. His friends come running as they hear the shot – he reassures them and as soon as he is alone shoots himself.
Epilogue: as the ballet closes, the same opening scene is repeated and expanded, we now see Mary’s body dragged into the coffin, her burial taking place in the early hours to cover up a potential royal scandal.
Some of the Liszt pieces featured in Lanchbery’s arrangements for Mayerling:
Twelve Transcendental Studies
Soirée de Vienne
But if you really must prepare an Ipod or Spotify playlist, see detailed track listings from ballet.co.uk
Mayerling opens the Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 season this autumn. For more details visit the ROH site
Original Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Libretto: Gillian Freeman
Music: Franz Liszt (arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery)
Premiere: 14 Feb. 1978 the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden
Original Cast: David Wall (Rudolf), Lynn Seymour (Mary Vetsera)
Original Designs: Nicholas Georgiadis
Sources and Further Information:
- Mayerling is an Unexpected Sucess (NY Times article, 1983)
- Wikipedia Entry for Mayerling
- Answers Entry for Mayerling
- Terrifyingly Truthful (Telegraph Review, 2004)
- The Royal Opera House Mayerling page