Mayerling review – trouble at court

Last Monday the Royal Ballet launched its 2018-19 season with Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan’s dark masterpiece, created in 1978, about events leading to the murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his lover, Mary Vetsera. The role of the damaged and morbid Rudolf was to be taken by Edward Watson, but injury forced him to withdraw, and the first performance was danced by Ryoichi Hirano, with Natalia Osipova as Mary.

Hirano is a dashing dancer and fine actor. In February his portrayal of Leontes in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale was mesmerising. But Hirano’s Rudolf was, for the first two acts at least, an enigma, his icy self-containment at odds with MacMillan’s florid, expressionistic choreography. He appeared at times more stoic than paranoid. Osipova, by contrast, was riotously unconstrained, but left us with no understanding of Mary’s character, or why she behaved as wildly she did. In Act 3, Hirano showed us what the previous two acts had merely hinted at: a soul in torment. His performance was suddenly riveting, as at moments was Osipova’s. But where Hirano was precise in his delivery of their shared choreography, Osipova was abandoned to the point of recklessness. Neither reading was intrinsically wrong, but the essential dramatic connection was never made, the partnership looked physically unstable, and the pair’s brief curtain call was chilly.

If the lack of chemistry between the two leads was disappointing, the production as a whole is splendid. Nicholas Georgiadis’s brooding designs perfectly convey the claustrophobia and stifling protocol of the Austrian court, the orchestra under Koen Kessels give a plangent account of the Liszt score, and the company act up a storm. Sarah Lamb, with her porcelain complexion and hawk-sharp gaze, is perfect as Rudolf’s manipulative former lover, Countess Larisch. If she no longer shares Rudolf’s bed, she can at least control who does, and Lamb’s glacial smile as she directs Osipova’s sexually avid Mary into his hands defines the character perfectly. Kristen McNally is a fraught and brittle Empress Elisabeth, devoid of maternal love for Rudolf and only at ease with Gary Avis’s bluff, practical-joking Colonel Middleton.

Francesca Hayward is miscast as the naive Princess Stephanie, the fiancee whom Rudolf cruelly terrorises (the hard, venal gleam that Hayward brings to her interpretation of Manon suggests that she would be a memorable Mary Vetsera), and while Marianela Nuñez does everything she can as the demi-mondaine Mitzi Caspar, the role has always lacked substance, as has the Act 2 tavern scene as a whole. For a choreographer who depicted prostitutes as often as he did, MacMillan had only the haziest notion as to their modus operandi. The current crop look, and behave, like sixth-formers at a fancy-dress party.

Cesar Corrales in the Royal Ballet’s Mayerling. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Alexander Campbell brings a nicely judged pathos to his portrayal of Bratfisch, Rudolf’s cab driver and occasional pimp, and Romany Pajdak is subtly excellent as Princess Louise, alternately flattered and panicked by Rudolf’s gauche pursuit of her at the ball to celebrate his engagement to Louise’s sister Sophie. But the performance everyone was talking about after curtain-down was that of Cesar Corrales as a Hungarian officer.

Twenty-two-year-old Corrales, newly arrived at the Royal from English National Ballet, acted with furious intensity, danced with tigerish virtuosity, and stole every scene in which he appeared. He is currently a senior soloist, but his performance on Monday was a clear statement of intent. Half of one of the UK’s starriest ballet couples – his real-life partner is ENB’s enchanting Katja Khaniukova – this is a young man with the will and the charisma to go all the way. There’s a cat among the Royal pigeons. Let’s see what happens.

  • Mayerling is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 30 October

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