If it runs for enough seasons, the new Netflix series The Empress (basically the Austrian version of The Crown) should come to the aid of balletomanes entangled in the plot of Mayerling. Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Habsburg history lesson comes with a cast list as long as your arm and charts events leading to the apparent suicide pact of Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage lover Mary Vetsera at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Not the cheeriest opener to The Royal Ballet’s season, but an evening of dark drama and emotional intensity which featured six of the company’s principals. 

Natalia Osipova (Mary Vetsera) and Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Frustratingly, full Royal Opera House cast sheets remain digital only – an environmental move – although the scheduled leading roles are now printed in the 96-page programme book. Extra paper would be required for the 27 roles listed, ranging from the Emperor Franz Joseph I to Josef Bratfisch, Rudolf’s loyal Fiaker, who took his knowledge of the Mayerling incident with him to the grave. At the plot’s centre, is the ballet’s Hamlet-like leading role, a morphine-addicted crown prince tortured by anxiety and courted by Hungarian separatists. It’s a tour de force of emotional depths, not always fully plunged by Ryoichi Hirano whose doomed Rudolf does not, as yet, delve into the character’s unhinged personality. 

Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Rudolf has nine pas de deux with various ladies during the course of the evening and Hirano was always a sensitive partner, taking the many muscular lifts in his stride. He looked suitably perplexed by the secret lobbying of the four Hungarian officers, whose luxury casting included principal Reece Clarke (surely a Rudolf to come?). 

Among the leading ladies, Francesca Hayward was Princess Stéphanie, conveying well the terror she suffers on her wedding night at the hands of her revolver-toting husband, or the humiliation of being dragged along to his favourite brothel. There, Marianela Núñez was a saucy Mitzi Caspar, flirtatious in the Mephisto Waltz set piece, the highlight of the John Lanchbery’s all-Liszt score. Itziar Mendizabal was a dignified Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), unsympathetic to her son’s pleading, but flirtatious with Gary Avis’ Colonel “Bay” Middleton. Laura Morera was a very naughty Countess Marie Larisch, Rudolf’s ex-mistress who then delights in hooking him up with the young Mary Vetsera. 

Francesca Hayward (Stéphanie) and Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

As soon as Natalia Osipova’s Mary slunk into his bedchamber in black negligee and started playing with the skull on his desk, Rudolf knew he’d found his perfect match. Osipova throws herself into these possessed roles completely and there was a dark, doomed inevitability about her Mary that I sometimes missed from Hirano’s Rudolf. She flung herself with wild abandon, tossed like a rag doll, wrapping herself around him passionately. In the suicide scene, she was gripped by feverish desire. 

Ryoichi Hirano (Rudolf) and Natalia Osipova (Mary Vetsera)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

MacMillan’s men are less clearly defined, but Luca Acri was a scampish Bratfisch, agile in his cheeky solos, but also conveying the deep affection he feels for Rudolf. 

Koen Kessels dug into the richness of the Lisztian score, the darkness of Rudolf’s motif – drawn from the Faust Symphony – burrowing its way into one’s consciousness. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was on strong form, the cellos in particular. There was also a lovely cameo by Catherine Carby, singing Ich scheide as Katharina Schratt, friend, confidante (and perhaps more) to Franz Joseph. Mayerling: so much sex and scandal that it’s a Habsburg mini-series in a single evening.

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