As a teenager, I used to be a ballet nut and now - after a long gap - I've resumed. Discovering a few friends who are also ballet nuts is a help - one of my more depressing experiences was watching my husband nod off quietly while Alina Cojocaru performed the Rose Adage, and discovering afterwards that he didn't know the story of The Sleeping Beauty. Upshot is I've been to see 'Mayerling' twice in two weeks.
'Mayerling', based on the true story of Prince Rudolf, heir to the Hapsburg empire, and his suicide pact with his teenaged mistress Mary Vetsera at the Mayerling hunting lodge, is real dance theatre. It achieves theatrical coups that you might not think ballet could deal with - the subtle (and less subtle) relationship between Rudolf and his ex-girlfriend; the frightening cross-currents in the various pas de deux (on his wedding night, after he has terrified his bride Stephanie with his favourite foreplay toys, a pistol and a skull, why does she still run after him and fling herself, literally, around his shoulders?); and ultimately the meeting of soulmates, even if those soulmates are people that most of us wouldn't want to go within 100 miles of. It makes you care passionately about the most unappealing of all possible characters, and cry when they kill each other. How does Kenneth MacMillan do it?
MacMillan was nothing short of a choreographic genius, but the answer - in part - has also got to be the music: Liszt, patchworked together by the expert arranger John Lanchbery. The late Lanchbery was a one-off. He made numerous arrangements for Frederick Ashton: La fille mal gardée, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, A Month in the Country and more. For 'Mayerling', he carefully selected, orchestrated and tailored to MacMillan's needs a tremendous range of Liszt - we spotted Soirees de Vienne, the Faust Symphony, Vallee d'Obermann, Funerailles, Chasse-neige, Harmonies du Soire, Paysage, a Valse oubliee, the Mephisto Waltz (brilliantly used in the tavern scene) and much more. Liszt was an inspired choice of composer - apart from the fact that he knew and performed to this whole bunch of mad, ghastly Hapsburgs, his music can steep you in romanticism and make you suspend your early 21st-century ironic detachment like nobody except possibly his son-in-law Wagner. Lanchbery is an undersung musical hero and deserves a standing ovation in his own right.
'Mayerling' is a powerful, at times devastating evening out - frighteningly exhilarating and cathartic - and I can't recommend it highly enough. Book online at the Royal Opera House link left.
PS - Delighted to find a Comment posting from harpist Helen Radice, a fellow classical music blogger. If you enjoyed the post about musicians' mad travel schedules, try hers - you ain't seen nothing yet! Link on the left.