***** (5 stars)
Well, this is certainly not your ‘usual’ classical ballet – the image of sticky-out tutus and ballerinas on one leg being twirled around by discreet but athletic young men who stay in the background is hard to shake off! And indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed Scottish Ballet’s Nutcracker last December – the perfect way to celebrate being alive and back together again: shame the reintroduction of covid restrictions prevented the show touring in January.
Now, however, Scottish Ballet are back, and back with the biggest possible bang you could imagine – an enthralling exploration of the slowly unravelling mind of crown Prince Rudolf, eldest son of Emperor Franz-Josef and his Empress Elizabeth, who has grown up in the stultifying atmosphere at court, never knowing love or affection from his parents. He seeks thrills and excitement in drink, drugs, and women – it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether they are noble or common, and he certainly isn’t monogamous. He has friends among the Hungarian officers but the closest person to him seems to be Bratfisch, the coachman who drives him to his assignations and hangs around to take him home again.
The ballet opens with a funeral. A coffin is slowly lowered into the ground, a priest reads some prayers – but there isn’t a grieving crowd, just a pair of men with umbrellas and someone lurking on the sidelines: whose funeral is this?
Flashback some years to the grand party at the Hofburg palace in Vienna to celebrate the marriage of the prince to Stephanie, a young princess who is thrilled by her situation and determined to be a good queen-in-waiting. She can’t understand why the prince is flirting so violently with her younger sister, Louise, or why he takes so much interest in Countess Larisch and her daughter Mary Vetsera whom she presents to the prince. Rudolf is summoned by his mother to explain himself, but his anguished behaviour is not met with any sympathy – she recoils from this attempts to reach out to her. On their wedding night princess Stephanie is shocked and then terrified by the prince’s wild behaviour, his obsession with a skull, his brandishing of a revolver, and his ultimate rape of her.
The prince’s irrational behaviour continues – he drinks with his friends, who try but fail to calm him down; he takes his bride to a tavern where she is shocked by the behaviour of the brothel workers. Rudolf abandons her as he pursues Mitzi Kaspar, his regular mistress and becomes embroiled in the machinations of some Hungarian nationalists. Countess Larisch continues to press him into a relationship with Mary Vetsera while encouraging her daughter’s romantic dreams with assurances that they are to be together. The prince’s mother interrupts a meeting between the prince and Countess Larisch, but departs before he is joined by Mary Vetsera – their relationship inflames their joint obsession with death, and they make a suicide pact.
At his hunting lodge at Mayerling, Rudolf is drinking with his friends, but rapidly sends them away. Bratfisch enters with Mary Vetsera and attempts to obey his master’s order to entertain them, but leaves when he realises he is invisible to them. Rudolf, now spiralling out of control, is precipitated into the morphine-fuelled carrying out of his suicide pact with Mary, shooting first her and then himself.
We return to the funeral with which the ballet began: now we know that it is Mary Vetsera who is being buried in secret, with Bratfisch the only grieving witness to this attempt to hush up the scandal at Mayerling,
In this ballet it’s the man who takes the starring role. Rudolf is rarely off stage, and in this technically demanding role has pas de deux with many different women, all of whom dance in different styles which reflect their feelings – the terrified bride, the flattered sister, the scheming older mistress, his regular ‘common’ mistress, the infatuated young Mary Vetsera. Evan Loudon expertly blended a sensitive attention to each of his partners with a chilling indifference to them all while himself dancing magnificently. His solo curtain call gave the audience the opportunity to salute his dramatic performance, his amazing athleticism and his supreme technical skill.
Constance Devernay was brilliant as the initially proud and excited Princess Stephanie who rapidly unravels in terror at her new husband’s irrational behaviour on their wedding night. Sophie Martin was excellent as the young, naïve girl responding excitedly to Rudolf’s passion and rapidly joining, and even exceeding Rudolf in his obsession with death. All the other female roles were equally striking in their individuality; the four Hungarian officers tried but failed to control their prince’s erratic behaviour while taking part in some memorable all-male quintets. Bruno Macchiardi’s wonderful comic abilities provided the only lighter moments in a pretty heavy piece, which never oppressed but didn’t shrink from portraying the blacker side of royal life.
Martin Yates, guest conductor of Scottish Ballet’s orchestra, was also responsible for the re-orchestration of the score for Kenneth MacMillan’s original ballet to meet the need for a reduced, touring-sized, orchestra. The music of Franz Liszt was a perfect match for the action on stage, with some ‘ooh I know this bit’ moments and a continuously-flowing accompaniment to the drama. MacMillan’s original large-scale ballet was re-worked by Christopher Hampson and Gary Harris, with the full approval of his widow Deborah, to create a production that could be taken on tour and also use the whole company’s talents. It’s a visual feast, with magnificent costumes and atmospheric lighting, played against very simple backdrops which rapidly reflect the changes of scene.
Yet again Scottish Ballet have come up with something memorable, which I hope won’t disappear from their repertoire but be presented to us more than once. Do try to get to see it if you can: and if not, look forward to another new production – their take on the classic Coppelia, which will first see the light of day in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Scottish Ballet Presents, The scandal at Mayerling, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Run Ended, Scottish Tour Continues.