The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling – A Review

Mayerling is probably the darkest classical ballet around – a sad tale of drugs, madness and suicide that is currently enjoying performances by the Royal Ballet in London.  It’s also one of Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpieces, showing his great talent for expressing emotion through dance, particularly through some quite astounding, and physically challenging, duets in which the dancers twine around each other in a series of complex and demanding lifts.

The performance I saw should have starred Johan Cobborg and Alina Cojocaru but both were injured so instead we had Bennet Gartside as Crown Prince Rudolf and Mara Galeazzi as Mara. An interesting combination – Galeazzi a well-regarded veteran in the role, dancing her last season with the Royal Ballet, and Gartside a First Soloist dancing the role of Rudolf for only the second time.

It was a surprise when Gartside was named as replacing Cobborg as I don’t think of him as the kind of larger-than-life dancer that the role demands – Acosta has long been a triumph in the role and this season by all accounts Ed Watson, too, gave a magnificent performance. Gartside was rather subdued in the earlier acts – I didn’t get a sense of Rudolph’s inner torment and his duet with Emma Maguire as Princess Stephanie felt mechanical – too concerned with delivering the difficult choreography to convey the sense of a man nearly out of control that the scene demands.

Because Rudolph didn’t dominate in the usual way there was room for some of the other roles to come to the fore – particularly Countess Larisch, danced by Hikaru Kobayashi. Kobayashi has long been a mainstay of the Royal Ballet, reliably good in any role but somehow not really delivering star quality. But in this performance she came into her own, giving us a complex portrait of a scheming, manipulative but ultimately sincerely affectionate woman, beautifully and precisely danced.

Helen Crawford, as the courtesan Mitzi, danced strongly and James Hay as Bratfisch imbued his sad attempt to entertain the despairing Rudolph in the last act with the right combination of energy and pathos. I particularly liked the way he rolled his top hat along his shoulders with confident skill but then let it drop to the ground at the end as despair took hold.

royal ballet mayerling review

Mara Galeazzi and Edward Watson in Mayerling © ROH/Johan Persson, 2005

The ballet developed momentum once Marie Vetsera came on the scene. Galeazzi gave us a girl whose crazed obsession with death matched and even exceeded Rudolph’s own and whose abandoned dancing sparked Rudolph into life as well. In the last act, Gartside threw caution to the winds to show us a man at the end of his tether with nowhere left to hide, and rose to match Galeazzi’s dramatic acting in the final suicidal duet.

Mayerling continues at the Royal Opera House until 15th June. It will be relayed live to the BP big screens in a variety of venues including Trafalgar Square on Thursday 13th June at 7:30 when Ed Watson and Mara Galeazzi will dance the leading roles.