Fifteen years had elapsed since Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling was last performed at the Opera House in Budapest, a city where the historical narrative of the murder/suicide of Mary Vetsera and Crown Prince Rudolf has great significance in prefacing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a salutary thought that while Zsófia Gyarmati was portraying the Empress Elisabeth (affectionately known as Sisi), she was performing beneath the ornately pillared box (above the orchestra pit on the left of the auditorium) that Sisi used on her regular visits there.

Gergő Ármin Balázsi (Crown Prince Rudolf) and Lili Felméry (Mary Vetsera)
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

All this had even greater resonance since this Hungarian National Ballet performance celebrated the reopening of the Opera House after a five year refurbishment and it came on the eve of the day that celebrates Hungarian independence. The auditorium positively glowed with national pride across an audience in which almost every member wore a rosette in the national colours of red, white and green.

Nonetheless, for all its Hungarian relevance, Mayerling is made-in-Britain, premiering at The Royal Ballet in 1978 and forever indelibly linked with its creator, Kenneth MacMillan, who died backstage on the opening night of a revival of the ballet in October 1992. Almost 30 years’ later, his widow, Lady (Deborah) MacMillan remains a tireless custodian of his repertoire and she had been present in Budapest with two repetiteurs (Karl Burnett and Grant Coyle) to assist the Ballet Director, Tamás Solymosi with this important revival. 

© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

Nicholas Georgiadis’ original set and costume designs were so expertly reproduced in the Hungarian Ballet workshops that they appeared identical to those in use at Covent Garden. And, with very minor exceptions, the same was true of excellent performances throughout the cast. Mayerling requires a large company to field multiple casts of a long list of named characters and this ensemble rose to the challenge with aplomb.

Foremost is the role of Rudolf, unquestionably one of the most challenging male roles in the ballet repertoire with eight pas de deux partnering six different ballerinas, some of which are amongst the most physically challenging of MacMillan’s expressionist duets. Gergö Armin Balázsi does not readily fit the traditional physicality associated with the great exponents of this role (David Wall, Irek Mukhamedov or Johan Kobborg) since he is exceptionally tall and rangy but – just as Edward Watson did some years’ before – Balázsi exuded a belief in the character that was palpable. His journey from haughty and entitled arrogance in Act 1, where he humiliates his bride, Princess Stephanie (a heart-breaking performance by Yourim Lee) by flirting openly with her sister, Louise (Barbara Kerényi), to a pathetic and drug-addled human husk by the end was well observed with fine attention to detail.

Yourim Lee (Princess Stephanie) and Gergő Ármin Balázsi (Crown Prince Rudolf)
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

Lili Felméry had a similar dramatic impact in her journey as Mary Vetsera, the young woman (just 17 at the time of her death) who shared Rudolf’s descent into oblivion, first encountered as an excited adolescent soaking up the atmosphere of the Imperial Palace’s Hofburg Ballroom and her fateful introduction to Rudolf. The passionate and frenetic duets between Balázsi and Felméry were electric although he seemed inappropriately cautious in the abusive duet with Lee where some of the lifts required a degree of unnecessary preparation.

Jessica Carulla Leon (Mitzi Kaspar) and Gergő Ármin Balázsi (Crown Prince Rudolf)
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

Claudia García Carriera danced the pivotal role of Countess Larisch – Rudolf’s cousin, probable lover, and the go-between for Vetsera – and she reminded me in many ways of The Royal Ballet’s Laura Morera in the same role, which is high praise. Rudolf’s long-term mistress, the duplicitous courtesan Mitzi Kaspar, was given suitable vivacity by Jessica Carulla Leon; and András Rónai provided a poignant portrayal of the prince’s confidante, Bratfisch, desperately trying to use his dancing hat-tricks to pull Rudolf out of his suicidal despair at the final destination of the hunting lodge which provides the ballet’s title. Laura Topolánszky sang beautifully as Emperor Franz Joseph’s mistress, Katharina Schratt.

MacMillan’s skill in using ballet to convey complex psychological issues is deftly exemplified throughout Mayerling, marking the hypocrisy of a court riddled with infidelity, including Sisi’s own affair with Colonel Bay Middleton (an imposing performance by Iurii Kekalo); Rudolf’s complex relationship with his mother (well-articulated in their early duet, which leads to Rudolf raping his bride); and his growing fascination with death.

András Rónai (Bratfisch)
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

One would expect the composite collection of rich romantic melodies by Franz Liszt – compiled and arranged by John Lanchbery – to be played with feeling and respect by the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, conducted by Adám Medveczky, and that was certainly the case. The orchestra pit is deeper and wider than the norm and the recent refurbishment appears to have enhanced the acoustical performance. The hard work in restaging Mayerling against the challenge of Covid and racing against the clock to get the Opera House refurbishment completed on time was well rewarded with a faithful and absorbing performance that was rapturously received by a proud and attentive audience.

Graham's press trip to Budapest was funded by Hungarian State Opera