, September 2010
Franz Liszt, of course, did not compose Mayerling. The score is arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchberry from Liszt’s music... there is certainly a place for these pastiche pieces, especially considering the influence of George Balanchine, who is famously on record as being not in favor of the traditional single-night ballet. As with Balanchine, choreographer Kenneth McMillan gets the main billing here. Liszt and Lanchberry are placed under the title in small print. Lanchberry, based on the evidence of ballets like La Fille mal gardée and The Tales of Beatrix Potter, may have no peer as an arranger and orchestrator of ballet music...With Mayerling, McMillan and Lanchberry attempt to capture the best of both worlds by creating a traditional full-length dramatic ballet with a score arranged from multiple works by the same composer.
Mayerling is based on the historical events culminating in the much romanticized and mysterious murder-suicide of Austria’s Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Mary Vertsara. This lurid tale of sex, drugs, violence, womanizing, and political intrigue must have shocked audiences used to Giselle and Swan Lake when it premiered in 1978. Nevertheless, in the hands of several very accomplished casts, it has deservedly become a big hit for the Royal Ballet.
Edward Watson totally throws himself into the demanding and unsympathetic role of the sadistic Austrian Crown Prince obsessing over guns and skulls. He is not a particularly fluid or graceful dancer and his leaps are nothing special, but that is OK because the Mayerling scenario does not lend itself to elegant dancing. Watson’s greatest strengths are his acting and total physical immersion into the role. He starts tentatively in act I, but the intensity of his performance steadily rises as Rudolf’s life spirals downward toward the final scene at Mayerling. Mara Galeazzi is similarly convincing but less intense as she steadily evolves from a starry-eyed young girl to a willing participant in Rudolf’s death pact. The core of the ballet lies in the several pas de deux between Rudolf and his women (Mary Vetsara, Countess Larisch, Princess Stephanie, among others). The final scene as danced by Watson and Galeazzi is probably unprecedented in its brutal physicality. Sarah Lamb also deserves special mention for her riveting portrayal of the conniving Countess Larisch.
Liszt’s music is ideal for the story in terms of time, setting, subject matter, and the dark and brooding romantic tone that is immediately established with the somber threatening chords from Héroïde funèbre in the Prologue and Epilogue set in the cemetery where some shadowy people are secretively disposing of Mary Vetsara’s body. Lanchberry’s amazing arrangements and orchestration of numerous works effectively hold the plot together without sounding like a pastiche. The one major miscalculation is the five-and-a-half-minute Mephisto Waltz sequence in the already too-long act II tavern scene. This music is so familiar in other contexts that it tends to take you out of the ballet and does nothing to further the plot. Other scenes (the royal shoot and the Emperor’s birthday party) appear to be unnecessary in a ballet whose main weaknesses are its length and lengthy list of similar (mostly female) characters. The program notes include an essay on the historical events and a very useful synopsis that successfully guides the viewer through the convoluted plot...The extras include a short feature showing Watson and Galeazzi rehearsing their final pas de deux at Mayerling, plus a review of the elaborate costumes. Subtitles are in French, German, and Spanish. Mayerling is also available in a widely praised 1994 standard DVD featuring Irek Mukhamedov, Viviana Durante, and Darcey Bussell, but the audio and visual superiority of Blu-ray technology makes this the preferred version. Don’t miss it.