Ed Watson is now so synonymous with the role of Crown Prince Rudolf, the making of Macmillan’s mad male masterpiece, that during a recent sojourn to Vienna, I was disappointed to stumble upon a portrait of the Prince in which he wasn’t even redhead. More fool me – but the opening night of the Royal Ballet’s latest run of Mayerling has only cemented this impression more firmly in my mind.
Some of the quickest impressions of Friday night’s performance before an action-packed bank holiday weekend whizzes me away:
The first cast is perhaps the strongest Mayerling cast ever fielded. Eight principals: Watson’s Rudolf; Osipova as his Mary (role debut); Lamb as Countess Larisch; young starlets Hayward and Campbell as Princess Stephanie and Bratfisch respectively; the soon-departing Yanowsky as the Empress, and; even principals in comparatively marginal roles of Mitzi Kasper (Nunez) and the lead Hungarian soldier (Hirano). For a discipline often stereotyped as intensely political, it is remarkable to see the coherent and united front presented by the highest rank of the company.
Watson as Rudolf – what is left to say? What more can possibly be added? The very build of his body seems ideally suited – lanky, pale, long-limbed, slightly waif-like and tragic. No-one tells a story quite like Ed Watson. Rudolf’s internal monologue throughout is clear and loud; his wavering over the strong-arm opinions of the Hungarian soldiers, his maniacal desperation when left alone. There is vulnerability and insanity in his solo variation upon spying the Empress with her lover, and ferocious negative capability in every pas de deux with Mary. Also exceedingly well acted is the slightly vague nature of his feelings towards his doomed mistress. History dictates that while Rudolf was certainly the great love of Mary’s short life, his affections did not extend quite so deeply. It wasn’t Mary’s “deep, black eyes,” that drove him to seek respite, but a more grandiose obsession with the macabre. This is expressed beautifully and devastatingly in both Act Three pas de deuxs. The first, in Rudolf’s apartments, is disturbingly harrowing to observe. When his Mary approaches to coax him out of catatonic stupor, Rudolf is slow to react but then snatches blindly, ferocious, the very upturned tilt of his palms angular and detached. Too often does the final pas de deux, in the Mayerling lodge, verge upon a great lovetorn farewell. There is nothing to suggest that here; Watson’s Rudolf is lavish with the physical, but mentally depraved and already departed.
If previous experiences with this dancer have taught anything is that you must endeavour to catch his final performance of the run. Such is the gruelling nature of the role that – pragmatically – there may have been a slight tinge of calculation in his Act One portrayal, a need to pace himself early on. Rudolf requires complete, immersive abandon – so, see it on the 11th and weep.
Now to Mary. I think the moment the casting announcement was made, it was instinctively apparent that Osipova’s Mary was going to be something different. Indeed, it was. Let us ruminate upon the Baroness Vetsera herself. We know that Rudolf comprised her world. While she perhaps lacked the intellectual savant that the Crown Prince valued so highly, her adoration for his person was limitless and fanatical; she both bought into and channelled anew Rudolf’s unhinged world-weariness. On Osipova, this latter aspect was disconcertingly wonderful. She is the first Mary, in a long time, who seems to amplify Rudolf’s intense obsessions and triumphs, not luxuriates, in his physical attentions. She has her own perverse afflictions, separate from his – in the bedroom pas de deux, she seemed to break free of convention and entered a state of frenzied hedonism. Rudolf, weakened and world weary, is almost prone before such a sybarite display. In this interpretation, while Mary was not perhaps the love he chose to take to death, she was the catalyst without whom it never would have materialised.
The other emotional standout of the evening was Yanowsky’s Empress, a complex cool icon. The strength of her gaze alone conveys the unhappiness that seems to overshadow her person. Her Act One pas de deux with Rudolf was heartrendingly uncomfortable to observe; yet, she facilitates the character’s internal conflicts so convincingly with the stolen pas de deux with Gary Avis as her lover a snatched, suspended moment. There is an elegance about Yanowsky few can emulate; she has time, she has reason, under all of which simmers tremendous dramatic capability. I shall miss her something terrible.
It should perhaps suffice to say that all roles, across the board where beautifully conveyed (one nervous moment with a costume mishap in Act One aside), and time is not on my side to lavish sufficient attention on each. Sarah Lamb’s Larisch is grand, coy and authoritative – when she circles Rudolf, together with Mary, there is a marvellous internal gravity underpinning the interchange of the two women. With every shared bouree, Osipova’s Mary seems to be guided from and learn from this much more worldly being. I long to perhaps one day see Ryoichi Hirano’s Rudolf, such is the depth of his style and I believe that dramatically, he has much to give. Most of all, I long to see this cast immortalised to the end of days.