Arriving at Covent Garden last night and glancing at my Mayerling cast sheet I wondered if the audience – mostly non-ballet-regulars thanks to a promotion ran by The Sun newspaper – had any idea of their lucky draw with this particular cast: principals Laura Morera as Mitzi Caspar and Steven McRae as Bratfisch, soloists Sergei Polunin and Thomas Whitehead as 2 of the Hungarian separatists, Cindy Jourdain as Rudolf’s mother Empress Elisabeth (aka Sissi), a very talented field team to support a luxury leading cast: Edward “born to play Crown prince Rudolf” Watson, Mara Galeazzi as his Mary Vetsera and the much missed Sarah Lamb, back after one year absence, as his older lover Countess Larisch.
Whether this hot cast was already known to few or many, I think we all soon understood how special this performance was going to be. All that has been said in the press, rather more eloquently, of Watson’s Rudolf a couple of years ago is true: his “unfurling line” is better than ever. So is the “ability to turn his distinctive appearance to dramatic advantage. But what particularly impresses me is how he is able to remain so naturalistic, so effortlessly at home in a role which is said to be so demanding, the Mount Everest of male dancing. Watson turns MacMillan’s choreography inside out, he inhabits it so completely that by the time he loses his head and his lover in Act 3 he does not seem to be executing steps anymore, he is entirely possessed by dance, and thus by obsession and madness. His approach to the role is a crescendo of faster turns and high extensions combined with signs of agitation, of symptom, in every gesture. Every step links into a continuous whirlwind of emotion.
Although Crown Prince Rudolf is frequently onstage and frequently dancing it is interesting to observe how MacMillan envisaged a character who does not “dance with the music”. This is blatant when you compare Rudolf against the dancers in the Tavern or his private entertainer Bratfisch. The latter are stereotypes, the “ballet within the ballet”, whereas Rudolf, except for the scenes where he joins in the group dances, is always a dissonant voice, an unconventional mover. Mayerling is not about the sequence of bravura steps which are characteristic of male classical roles, but more about how the protagonist, through scattered solos and a series of pas de deux with his many women, conveys his diseased view of the world, another of MacMillan’s ground breaking choreographic visions.
But even though MacMillan crafted steps that speak more than actions, he also stayed rooted in theatrical tradition, demanding from his lead strong dramatic skills. When Watson is not dancing we see Rudolf’s neurotic mind constantly questioning his surroundings, observant, clearly setting his own agenda. In Act 2 for instance, the family gathers to hear a lieder sung by the Emperor’s lover, the actress Katherina Schratt, a song (“Ich Leide”, by Liszt) which speaks of farewells, of someone who is leaving. As Rudolf stands at a safe distance from everyone else, we see he is listening carefully, that he is soaking up those words to fuel his dark intentions.
With Watson’s line becoming progressively more extreme – I have never seen him using his extensions in a classical piece so liberally – we see the edges this Crown Prince is willing to go over to rid himself of this world. He carries the weight of the distant relationship with his mother, unleashes his Oedipean frustrations on his wife and on his old lover Countess Larisch, but in the encounters with young lover Mary Vetsera we see the dance become more weightless, almost like a brief release from pressure. Here Watson throws all caution to the wind, so full of complicity in his last “crazy-love” pas de deux with Mara Galeazzi’s fluid Vetsera that you think for just one moment this Rudolf might not go ahead with the initial suicide plan. But we know how it all ends: not happily.
It was a fantastic, intense start for the ballet season. Although there are always first night jitters and some fine tuning as performances progress, the company seemed on great form back from their break and probably pleased with the big cheer they got from a very appreciative crowd. With this amazing cast and such a compelling piece we hope the new audience left enthused and ready to come back for more. It certainly sounded like it.
The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.