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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mayerling - Ballet in three acts. arr. John Lanchbery

Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan
Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary … Irek Mukhamedov
Princess Stephanie, his wife … Jane Burn
Empress Elisabeth, his mother … Nicola Tranah
Baroness Mary Vetsera, his mistress … Viviana Durante
Countess Marie Larisch, lady-in waiting to the Empress, ex-mistress of Rudolf … Lesley Collier
Mitzi Caspar, a high class prostitute, Rudolf’s regular mistress … Darcey Bussell
The Royal Ballet
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1, 5 February 1994

Experience Classicsonline

Kenneth MacMillan died of a heart attack on 29 October
1992 while backstage at Covent Garden at a revival of his ballet, Mayerling. This was ironic, given the dark, tragic nature of its story. MacMillan was one of the great choreographers of the 20th century. He was unafraid of confronting controversial issues in his ballets and often probed the darker side of human nature and sexuality. Mayerling was very typical in this respect. This is not a sedate ballet in the classical sense – instead it presents raw emotion and brazen sexuality.


The tragedy of Mayerling involving the alleged double-suicides of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and his mistress, the 17 year-old, Mary Vetsera at the Royal Hunting Lodge of Mayerling in 1889 is well-known. It has since become the subject of many books, films and dramas – frequently very fanciful. Conflicting reports and versions of the events have occluded its mystery which will probably be never solved. Much of the evidence was destroyed or concealed at the time, for fear of scandal. MacMillan’s ballet shows Crown Prince Rudolf as an angst-ridden, suicidal, drug-and-drink-addled womaniser, pursued by many demons. His parents, Emperor Franz Josef and his cold, unloving mother, Empress Elisabeth were both having affairs and led a hedonistic, dissolute court. Rudolf himself was being constantly pressurised to support the Hungarian separatist cause.


Irek Mukhamedov holds centre-stage throughout, dancing with his wife, numerous mistresses and fancies, and his proud and unsupportive mother. His is a muscular and commanding but chilling portrayal of the flawed, Prince - utterly decadent yet disturbed and vulnerable. The supporting cast all shine. There are so many memorable moments. Top of the list must surely be the Act I, Scene 3 wedding-night encounter when Rudolf comes to his unloved bride to consummate his enforced marriage. He terrifies his bride Princess Stephanie by levelling a revolver at her. One of the most provocative, disturbing dances I can ever remember seeing in any ballet follows as Rudolf forces himself on the petrified girl who is danced with beautifully expressed vulnerability by Jane Burn. The choreography is wild and startling by any standards. But why did the cameras have to dwell overlong on close-ups of facial expressions when it would have been far more revealing to see their full, frequently quite horrific body movements across the whole stage. That would have been far more expressive of Rudolf’s psychotic nature.


Lesley Collier is also most persuasive as Countess Marie Larisch, Rudolf’s aging ex-mistress. Larisch is at once anxious to preserve her slipping hold over him and to protect her position by providing him with a younger mistress she can control, Mary Vetsera. As Mary, Viviana Durante is excellent as Rudolf’s besotted, naïve young love interest only too eager to share in Rudolf’s decadence and his yearning for romantic oblivion. Nicola Tranah is regal as the Empress, coldly indifferent to Rudolf’s sufferings and forced into an illicit liaison because of her husband, the Emperor’s infidelity. Confined to a brief appearance in Act II, Darcey Bussell dances the role of the high class prostitute with her customary style and elegance using some extraordinary high back-kicks, if I am using the right ballet technical term. Mention should also be made of the rubber-jointed Matthew Hart as Bratfisch, Rudolf’s cab driver and popular entertainer.


John Lanchbery’s choice of music by Franz Liszt is for the most part imaginative and apposite. I will admit to not having an in-depth knowledge of Liszt’s music and I could recognise only one piece of music with certainty and that was the Mephisto Waltz that underscores Mitzi Caspar’s dance in the Tavern (Act II, Scene I). Other music, I think, was adapted from the piano concertos and his solo piano music and Hungarian Rhapsodies. I suspect Lanchbery deliberately chose less well-known music so that it would not detract from, and lessen the impact of what was happening on-stage. Neither the booklet notes, nor the on-screen credits referred to the names of the Liszt pieces used and the internet did not prove helpful either.


Provocative and brilliant.


Ian Lace



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