Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s fourth full-length work concerns the suicide/murder of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Habsburg Empire, and his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsara, at the Mayerling hunting lodge, in January 1889. It is a work that gives full vent to the horror-laden darkness of MacMillan’s expressionism, through the self-destruction of a young man, worn down by the expectations heaped upon him since birth, addled by narcotics and syphilis, lobbied relentlessly by Slavic separatists and obsessed by firearms and death.    

It is also a prized possession in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire, here enjoying its 134th performance at The Royal Opera House, since its world premiere, on 14 February 1978 (and I doubt that there could ever have been a more inappropriate ballet for Valentine’s Day). Fourteen years’ later, MacMillan collapsed and died, alone, backstage during the first night of Mayerling’s revival with the debut of Irek Mukhamedov in the role of Rudolf. Other emotional evenings at The Royal Opera House have included the company farewells of Mukhamedov and Johan Kobborg, both performing appropriately, as Rudolf. MacMillan dedicated the ballet to Sir Frederick Ashton and some of the steps - for example, those of the servants and ladies-in-waiting - are very much in the Ashton style. It is a ballet closely bound to the company’s history.

It is also a ballet that challenges the strength in depth of any company, requiring the services of no less than eight principal dancers on this opening night, essaying just some of the many named characters in Gillian Freeman’s necessarily expansive scenario, which was used by MacMillan, unabridged. It needs a lot of preparation. The period – fin-de-siècle – in Vienna required an authenticity in elaborate costumes (complete with frock coats, bustles and long skirts), which are notoriously difficult to dance in. The opening scene of each of the three acts is packed with dancers and actors, presenting lighting and spatial challenges.

Unfortunately, this opening show came, perhaps, a day too soon, because some aspects appeared under-rehearsed. Pointe shoes became tangled in an over-long dress, not once, but twice; and, at the following performance it seemed that the same dress (on a different dancer) had been shortened. Performers sometimes entered, cloaked in darkness as well as elaborate costumes; in a way that was not evident at the following day’s performance. Even the technology can be problematic: the torrential rain that should pour down on the pathetic, rushed burial of Mary Vetsara, digitally projected onto a black backdrop, was evident at the epilogue but virtually non-existent in the prologue. 

Performances also grew as the opening night progressed. Edward Watson’s portrayal of Rudolf is unlike any other. His is not the erotically-charged, menacing portrayal of the role’s creator (David Wall), shared by many of the current generation of interpreters (such as Federico Bonelli and Thiago Soares). Instead, Watson brings an air of pathetic degeneracy; of malevolent bullying (towards his wife, Princess Stephanie – a superb debut by Francesca Hayward); altogether, it is an intriguing essay of debauched uselessness. And, yet, this needy fragility has to disguise the immense physical strength required for the toughest of all male roles, not least in eight pas de deux with six different partners. In the Mukhamedov and Kobborg eras, I never would have seen Watson as Rudolf but, now – aged 41 – it is a defining role in a career at least as stellar as those great dancers. 

Excellent performances permeated the cast. Alexander Campbell gave a memorable cameo as Rudolf’s servant, Bratfisch; Zenaida Yanowsky provided a multi-faceted account of “Sissi” (the Empress Elizabeth), haughty and cold towards the court, loyally devoted to her husband, the Emperor (an appropriately aloof Christopher Saunders) but highly romantic in affection for her lover, ‘Bay’ Middleton (suavely portrayed by Gary Avis); Sarah Lamb also showed the many faces of Countess Larisch (Rudolf’s former mistress), desperate to keep him by any means; and Marianela Nuñez was sublime in her only scene as the duplicitous Mitzi Caspar, a high-class prostitute (and another of Rudolf’s lovers). The dance where she is passed around the four Hungarian officers is so reminiscent of Manon being passed around her male admirers (in MacMillan's Manon; also in a brothel; also the first scene of the second act).

The role of Vetsara, although essential, is largely confined to the second half of the ballet, dominated by two highly-charged pas de deux: one an erotic dance of unconditional obedience; the other a desperate, drug-fuelled prelude to death. Natalia Osipova gave a performance of unconditional abandon, absolutely suited to MacMillan’s intentions, flinging herself at Watson’s Rudolf, spinning around his neck at breathtaking speed, hurling herself fearlessly into every iconic lift and hold. The third act duet alone elevated this into a memorably emotional show.