The video of the Royal Ballet’s Mayerling (Royal Opera House / Covent Garden Pioneer) was recorded on 5 February 1994, a live performance from Covent Garden. It captures a number of the dancers of the Royal in peak form: Irek Mukhamedov as the tormented Crown Prince Rudolf, and Viviana Durante, Lesley Collier and Darcey Bussell as some of the many women in his life.
I do have a few quibbles with this video as it is packaged for sale: if ever a three act ballet cried out for an introduction, and an explanation of the characters and background, it is this one. Mayerling is set in the imperial court in Vienna: and it tells the story of the downfall and death of the crown prince. Rudolf, a compulsive womaniser, is trapped in a marriage to a woman he dislikes (Princess Stephanie): he is unable to make any emotional contact with his mother (Empress Elizabeth): his father (Emperor Franz Joseph) despises him. He has lost interest in his former mistress, the Countess Larisch, who nevertheless seeks to keep her hold over him by bringing new young girls like Mary Vetsera to his attention. No one can be trusted: officers entreat him to join their conspiracies, and even his low life tart, Mitzi Caspar, betrays his secrets. Only Mary Vetsera shares his morbid passions, and their hopelessness and despair leads to the final suicide pact.
The work is crammed with characters and narrative detail. But the video contains no booklet or introductory information, and the tape itself no background details. MacMillan’s aim was to reveal character and narrative through dance alone, with no recourse to mime: he made a powerful and impassioned attempt, but Mayerling isn’t the easiest work to follow, and some guidance really would have been useful.
The performance itself, however, is well captured. Although Mayerling has grand ball scenes, despite the grandeur of its settings and the lushness of its costumes, its strengths really lie in the intimate emotional interactions between individuals. The big ball scenes, predictably, do not come across as impressively as they do live - the dancers are reduced so much in scale, and the lighting for these scenes has a curious red glow (fortunately the colour is OK in close-ups). However these are not the heart of the work. The camera work for the pas de deux that form the core of Mayerling is generally very good, without distracting cuts from one angle to another. There is a concentration on conveying the finer nuances of the production where possible, including good reaction shots of some characters, for instance Elizabeth’s real feelings showing after politely greeting her husband’s mistress. Every effort has been made to help to tell the story as clearly as possible, and if it is still somewhat problematic, then that is down to MacMillan rather than the camera.
Mayerling centres on one of the most demanding roles created in British ballet for a male dancer. Fortunately the evening found Irek Mukhamedov on his most powerful and compelling form: he brought not just formidable technical strength to the role, but real fire and passion. I was at Covent Garden when this video was recorded: it was very hard to tear your eyes away from him. Rudolf is not an appealing character: he can be cruel, decadent and violent, but though he is all of these things, Mukhamedov still claims our understanding and even sympathy for a character who is isolated, pressured and increasingly desperate.
Rudolf has a formidable series of pas de deux to negotiate in the course of the three acts. The first act includes his flirtation with his wife’s sister Louise (Sarah Wildor) : his tense, despairing search for affection from his repressed and uncomprehending mother (Nicola Tranah): a wild and bitter confrontation with his prim wife (Jane Burn) who he terrorises in a pas de deux of violence and abandon remarkable even by MacMillan’s standards.
The second act introduces us to more of the women in Rudolf’s life. Darcey Bussell appears as Mitzi Caspar, a prostitute in a tavern filled with tarts - they look more like something out of Cabaret than 19th century Vienna. The scheming Countess Larisch (an excellent dramatic performance from Lesley Collier) fatefully introduces the young Mary Vetsera (Viviana Durante) to Rudolf. The act concludes with a pas de deux which is almost the complete emotional reversal of the one which closes Act 1. Mary and Rudolf meet in secret for the first time: in Act 1 he terrorised his wife with a skull and a pistol, but here Mary eagerly grasps them. The partnership between Durante and Mukhamedov generates such formidable emotional intensity that at the end of the act you feel drained - I wish the video had a slight gap between the acts instead of moving on briskly to the third act. The experience of watching it straight through is just too much - the fevered atmosphere becomes oppressive and claustrophobic. You need to take a break, and not watch it straight through.
The third act becomes still more frenzied. Rudolf’s relationships with his family become still more strained, his obsession with death becomes more pronounced. Finally, after one more passionate duet with Mary Vetsera he shoots her and then himself. The ballet concludes as it begun, with Vetsera’s lonely burial.
Mayerling is certainly a flawed work - there are too many characters and too much plot to easily digest - but nevertheless a fascinating one. MacMillan’s heart doesn’t look to have been in the choreography for the scenes with the corps, but the ballet contains some of the most passionate and intense pas de deux he made. It is interesting to see a full length ballet built around a male dancer rather than a female for a change: and Mukhamedov gives a blazing performance which dominates the stage. This video is a good choice if you want to rekindle your memories of the production, and of the dancers in it. It’s not necessarily the best introduction to MacMillan, or the most characteristic of the Royal’s performances but it is a fine record of a particularly atmospheric and committed production.