Ballet is usually the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy but, in Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan continued a genre he had begun with Anastasia, a decade before; chronicling dark corners of European history through the medium of dance theatre. His depiction of the degradation of Crown Prince Rudolf, set against the fin de siècle decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been a cornerstone of The Royal Ballet’s repertoire since its première, in 1978.  

Natalia Osipova (Mary Vetsera) and Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf) in Mayerling
© ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks

The riches of past performances have helped to elevate the company’s reputation but it is a blessing that can also be a curse; since such exalted standards have to be matched time-after-time. This opening night of the new season reached such lofty heights only in parts, notably through excellent supporting performances and in a scintillating final act; highpoints that rivalled the very best.

Edward Watson’s portrayal of Rudolf has been a highlight in the twilight of this expressive dancer’s career and it was a huge disappointment to his legion of fans that injury robbed him (and us) of what is likely to be his final run at this role (at least, here, in Covent Garden). It fell to Ryoichi Hirano to bring his own debut forward by almost a week to take on this most taxing of all male roles (a déjà vu event since he also stepped in to substitute for Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, earlier this year).

Rudolf is virtually ever-present throughout, a marathon of concentration that involves partnering six different women (four in the crowded scenes of act one alone) and requiring a deep dive into the darkest recesses of a troubled mind. Rudolf is malevolent, abusive and uncaring (for himself and others); but he is also an emotional victim who suffers contempt from his father, the Emperor, and regular humiliations. Until the final act, where Hirano’s performance was enthralling, he struggled to convey the complexities of this compound character. His bearing was altogether too noble – more prince charming than a suicide-obsessed, drug-fuelled, syphilitic prince of darkness – in a performance that appeared to concentrate on the mechanics of the dance rather than expressing the reasons for each movement. Some of the earlier pas de deux lacked natural flow through the transitions as if cautiously preparing for the next section.

Natalia Osipova (Mary Vestera) and Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf) in Mayerling
© ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks

There should be brutality and physical abandon, for example, in the abusive bedroom duet between Rudolf and his wife, Princess Stephanie (Francesca Hayward) but something was inhibiting this dramatic purpose from being strongly – and believably – expressed. 

No such inhibitions affected Natalia Osipova’s coruscating portrayal of Mary Vetsara, bringing the eagerness of youthful adventure to the young girl whose obsessive love for Rudolf leads to her sharing his leap into oblivion. You believe her in every step of this downward spiral and it is no coincidence that Hirano’s best work comes in his scenes with Osipova. To begin with I struggled to read their chemistry but her dramatic reach is clearly infectious.    

The Royal Ballet has a huge depth to its strengths and so many of the supporting roles have been polished to a brilliant shine. Alexander Campbell has perfected the Bratfisch solo, so desperately trying to inspire Rudolf from his pit of despair; Marianela Nuñez brought grandeur and dignity to the high-class courtesan, Mitzi Caspar; Sarah Lamb portrayed Countess Larisch, Rudolf’s confidante and former lover who enthusiastically mediates his affair with Vetsara, as a demure schemer; as a youthful Empress Sissi, Kristen McNally delivered a powerful and diverse range of emotions; and, as Emperor Franz Josef’s “friend”, Katherina Schratt, Catherine Carby sang beautifully.      

It takes only a moment for consummate artists to convey character and dramatic purpose. It happens here when Elizabeth McGorian, as Baroness Vetsara, having initially encouraged her daughter’s fascination with Rudolf, is suddenly hit with a sinister foreboding – expressed in a haunting look through the fourth wall, as Larisch finalises the arrangement for Mary to meet Rudolf. And, it took Gary Avis all of three seconds, by simply wiping something from his eye, to convey the devil-may-care insouciance of Sissi’s lover, Colonel ‘Bay’ Middleton.

Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf) in Mayerling
© ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks

The late John Lanchbery spent a month listening to the output of Franz Liszt in order to develop and orchestrate a score that is gloriously suited to its purpose and was here superbly performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the direction of Koen Kessels.   

This performance may well gain an added historical significance, as The Royal Ballet debut for Cesar Corrales, performing as one of the four friends who try to influence Rudolf in the cause of Hungarian separatism. In all his scenes, Corrales was a commanding figure, even as one in a quartet of outstanding male dancers (alongside Luca Acri, William Bracewell and Reece Clarke).  There is a lot of competition amongst the excellent male cohort at The Royal Ballet but I believe we will see a rapid rise to stardom for this charismatic young dancer.