Two cities, three Mayerlings

Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier, Paris
October 28 & 29, 2022

The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London
October 21, 2022

Mayerling with its galaxy of characters, and a titular role that demands an actor-dancer of the finest skill, is fearsome in what it requires but equally exalted in its rewards. Unsurprising then that the Paris Opera Ballet, which has had a long association with narrative ballets, and a roster of male stars, would want to put itself to the sword. The opening night cast on Friday October 28 featured no less than four étoiles with the battle tested pairing of Hugo Marchand as the Crown Prince Rudolph with Dorothée Gilbert as the 17-year-old Mary Vetsera. The following evening, the pairing of Mathieu Ganio with Ludmila Pagliero was, in principle, no less starry.

As a pair, Marchand and Gilbert first received public acclaim in another Kenneth MacMillian ballet, Manon, and Marchand, a tall, handsome dancer, has offered dramatically intriguing characterisations of many classical roles. In time, he could become a great Rudolph but for now he offers an interpretation of sporadic brilliance that is hampered somewhat by a supporting cast of uneven quality.

Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand in the Paris Opera Ballet’s Mayerling
Photo Ann Ray, Opéra national de Paris

Marchand manipulates his partners with fearsome, thrilling ease but, as the Princess Stephanie, Sylvia Saint-Martin, wears an expression of generic doom from the ballet’s beginning till end. It doesn’t have to be this way. In another debut in the same role a week earlier, Isabella Gasparini from The Royal Ballet took, in a single act, the role from nervous pride to plaintive yearning to unbridled fear.

Laura Hecquet’s Empress Elizabeth was a bit of a cipher, vacuously cold, absent both as a mother and as a fleshed-out character. It also didn’t help that the dancing of the four Hungarian officers who swarm and surround Rudolph felt small in scale. They seemed merely irksome. An irritable diversion, no doubt, but you just can’t imagine their political plotting having much bite. In contrast, in London on October 21, The Royal Ballet’s quartet led by William Bracewell brought hints of menacing, conspiratorial power to their scenes with Rudolph and consequently, gave a better sense of the political stakes involved.

Simillary, the Tavern scene felt like a group of young elegant, Parisian men having fun as opposed to the sort of nihilistic, slightly unhinged ecstasy I remember from The Royal Ballet’s 2018 run of the ballet.

Hugo Marchand as Crown Prince Rudolf
in the Paris Opera Ballet’s Mayerling
Photo Ann Ray, Opéra national de Paris

I make these comparisons not to say that there is a ‘right’ way to dance Mayerling but to suggest that the narrative incoherencies I felt watching the Paris Opera are not endemic to the structure of the work, but are a matter of interpretive choice, and perhaps familiarity.

Hannah O’Neil as Countess Larisch is suitably glittery but her dancing lacks dramatic finesse and her duets with Marchand feel very much like two dancers still navigating the architecture of the steps rather than revealing its emotional interiority. It is only when Dorothée Gilbert as Mary Vetsera enters the stage that the ballet finds its hedonistic sweet spot.

Marchand and Gilbert are gorgeous together: sensual, uninhibited, fully ensnared by their own suicidal logic. But because the ballet only really gains psychological urgency when they are onstage together, on Friday night the Paris Opera’s rendition of Mayerling felt like a darker, more tragically twisted version of Manon or Romeo and Juliet.

But Mayerling is not Manon. Mayerling has political and historical stakes that take it away from the territory of doomed love story into the realm of the epic. To my mind, at least, Mayerling with its cinematic breadth and historical nuance is more Shakespeare’s Hamlet than tragic novella. And above all, and despite the exceptional demands it makes of its male protagonist, it is a company ballet. Rudolph as a character argument is built, advanced and made sense of through the interactions he has on stage with an entire host of characters. There were bright spots. Marc Moreau made for a touching Bratfisch and Valentine Colsante danced Mizzi Caspar with hearty abandon. But it is also quite clear that the Paris Opera which has only just acquired the ballet has not quite yet found its narrative constellation.

Ensemble-wise, the company took a step in the right direction on Saturday evening. Each of the featured women offered vivid, committed performances. Eleonore Guerineau was an expressive Princess Stephanie and Bleueen Battistoni a serpentine vision as Mizzi Caspar. Heloise Bourdon, in particular, made for an irresistible empress who alternated between aristocratic hauteur, rapturous warmth (with Pablo Legasa’s Colonel Bay Middleton) and quiet distress. Even the quartet of Hungarian Officers seemed less earthbound and more fleet of foot than their Friday night counterparts.

The Paris Opera Ballet in Mayerling
Photo Ann Ray, Opéra national de Paris

Initially, Mathieu Ganio’s Rudolph seemed to portend good things. Here was a Rudolph besotted with death and quick to rage. A Rudolph who through an elemental tweak of the mind seemed to possess a peculiar neurotic complex. But as the pas deux de count began to mount, and in this ballet it is the duets that hold everything together, Ganio began to unravel.

His first duet with Laura Hecquet’s Larisch was a bit of a disaster, although that could be because of their height difference. But in many other places overhead lifts and throws were either aborted, or simply missed. Towards the end as Ganio’s strength visibly ebbs away his Rudolph almost becomes too still, as if he is conserving energy for the big moments.

All that saved the ballet from ending on a whimper was Ludmila Pagliero’s Mary Vetsera. She brought to Mary a beguiling freshness, a childish openness that made her both believable as child victim, and ingenue seductress. In Act Two she was a playful tease, making it up as she goes alone. Later, you get the sense that she accompanies him into death because in the over imaginative and hyper-romantic mind of a 17-year-old love alone could resuscitate Rudolph. In a child’s naive mind, she is saving him.

Vadim Muntagirov as Crown Prince Rudolf in The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou, Royal Opera House

In a happy accident, across the English Channel, The Royal Ballet is also performing Mayerling. The cast it fielded on the October 21 was made up almost entirely of debutantes. But it is testimony to how deeply ingrained the ballet is in the company’s DNA that the performance felt deeply stirring. On paper Vadim Muntagirov is not the most natural Rudolph; and if I were being honest, it was only really curiosity that put me on a train from Cambridge to London. I left the performance however feeling quite changed.

As Rudolf, Muntagirov offers a portrait of a man driven to suicide not by the grotesque deformities of character but by the twisted contusions of the soul; his steep descent charted through rings of despair and desperation as opposed to pathological madness. He is achingly pleading with his mother, the wonderful Itziar Mendizabal. With the wretched Princess Stephanie he finds a level of sadistic anger that belies the elegance of his reputation as one of the world’s foremost classical stylist.

Vadim Muntagirov and Yasmine Naghdi in The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou, Royal Opera House

But even in the ballet’s most violent moments, the anger of Muntagirov’s Rudolph feels less physically immediate, and more an expression of existential rage; the sickness of the soul rather than the workings of a depraved mind. In Act Three the contrast between Muntagirov’s physical gauntness – the withered lines on his face, the limpid vulnerability of his affect – and the anguished piquancy of his dancing, was profoundly moving. He doesn’t dance brokenness or approximate its effects. He embodies Rudoph’s irreparable physical and emotional breakdown. At the same time, his extraordinary technical capacity lets the steps pour out in seemingly inexorable streams of movement.

Muntagirov is a rare Rudolph, one whose decline is as agonizingly real as it is exquisitely danced. Together with Yasmine Naghdi’s darkly lithe Mary (an unfortunate fall in Act Two notwithstanding) and Fumi Kaneko’s scheming, dazzling Countess Larisch the cast brought wonderful psychological insight to many moments.

Vadim Muntagirov and Yasmine Naghdi in Mayerling
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou, Royal Opera House

Walking out of The Royal Opera House, I overheard a couple behind me wondering if ‘he really killed her.’ ‘Did he shoot her?’ is a settled historical fact but as an exercise in counterfactual imagination it is a question worth asking because it invites reflection about the nature of evil, and man’s capacity to inflict harm. Perhaps in asking if ‘he really killed her,’ they were also asking if this is a Rudolf inherently capable of monstrous harm.

That Muntagirov inspires this puzzlement, that in some corner of our mind we still believe despite everything we have seen that Rudolph has retained some part of his humanity, is to his great credit. But importantly Muntagirov doesn’t do this by reducing Mayerling to a love story gone rogue, or Rudolph to the specter of a tragic, misunderstood hero. He confronts us with Rudolph’s disturbing complexity but argues for pity.