Mayerling ballet. Choreography by Kenneth MacMillan. Music by Franz Liszt as arranged and adapted by John Lanchbery. Performed 2009 at the Royal Opera House.  Stars Edward Watson (Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary), Mara Galeazzi (Baroness Mary Vetsera, Rudolf's mistress), Iohna Loots (Princess Stephanie, Rudolf's wife), William Tuckett (Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, Rudolf's father), Cindy Jourdain (Empress Elisabeth, Rudolf's mother), Sarah Lamb (Marie Larisch, Rudolf's ex-mistress), Elizabeth McGorian (Baroness Helena Vetsera, Mary's mother), Steven McRae (Bratfisch, Rudolf's driver and entertainer), Ursula Hageli (Archduchcess Sophie, mother of Franz Josef), Laura Morera (Mitzi Caspar, a high-class prostitute and Rudolf's regular mistress), Gary Avis (Colonel Middleton, lover of the Empress), Sergei Polunin, Bennet Gartside, Yohei Sasaki, Thomas Whitehead (four Hungarian officers), Elizabeth Sikora (Katerina Schratt, a friend of the Emperor),  Paul Stobart (Alfred Grünfeld, a pianist), Alastair Marriott (Count Taafe, Prime Minister), Johannes Stepanek (Count Hoyos, Rudolph's friend), Romany Pajdak (Princess Louise, Stephanie's sister), David Pickering (friend of Rudolf), Sian Murphy (Princess Gisela, Rudolf's elder sister), Francesca Filpi (Princess Valerie, Rudolf's younger sister), Leanne Cope (Princess Valerie as a child), Mara Galeazzi (Mary Vetsera as a child); Michael Stojko (Rudolf's valet), Ernst Meisner (Count Larisch), and other artists of the Royal Ballet. Barry Wordsworth conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Associate Concert Master Ania Safonova). Designs by Nicholas Georgiadis; scenario by Gillian Freeman; lighting by John B. Read; staging by Grant Coyle, Monica Mason, and Monica Parker. Produced and directed by Ross MacGibbon. Released 2010, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A+

"Mayerling" was the name of a Habsburg royal hunting lodge in Austria. In 1889 a mysterious double homicide occurred there involving Crown Prince Rudolph, age 31, and Baroness Mary Vetsera, Rudolph's mistress, age 17. After an extensive cover-up, the belief emerged that Rudolph murdered Mary and committed suicide or that that they committed suicide together. This event is called the "Mayerling incident," and it became a metaphor for the end of divine-right royal rule in Europe (which in fact concluded 30 years later in 1917 in Russia and 1918 in Austria-Hungary).

Rudolf knew that if he became emperor, he would be faced with huge political challenges. He was just smart enough to know how intellectually and morally inadequate he would be for the task ahead. He had no one to turn to for advice; and his friends, separatist Hungarian army officers, were being watched by the secret police. Nor could his mother, absorbed with her own big-time marital problems, offer solace. The way out was addiction to sex, drink, and fantasies of death.

Mayerling is a modern ballet created by McMillian in 1978. It's a study in abnormal psychology, and it requires the utmost in dancing and acting skills from a large cast. Some of the dancing is pleasant if rather routine. But there are also 4 pas de deux scenes that look to me to be as hard and dangerous and impressive as ballet can be. All this will appeal to anyone interested in 20th century art. But Mayerling is also intrinsically a costume drama. It is supported an admirable potpourri of Franz Liszt program and piano music (mostly transcribed for orchestra by John Lanchbery), much of which is somber and creepy. So there's plenty here to please the traditionalists. Although Rudolf hurt a lot of people and took a teenager's life as his final trophy, the libretto portrays him as victim, not villain. He knew what he was doing was wrong and despaired. But he was a person with only ordinary ability caught up in a vortex of extraordinary forces with no help in sight.

It would be hard to find fault with any of the dancers. Watson has an extraordinary (maybe unique) talent for displaying anguish and pain; his astonishing performance here is analogous to that of Yuan Yuan Tan in her amazing depiction of The Little Mermaid. Galeazzi, who has a special talent for exuding aggressive sexuality,  is convincing as the girl who was sufficiently infatuated and reckless to be what the disintegrating Prince had never found before: a soul mate to the death.

The sound on this disc is fine. The video is a bit soft and "rosy and yellow" at times because most of the scenes are indoors and everything seems to happen at night. At the beginning of Act 1 there is a grand parade of royal families moving across the stage going to Stephanie's wedding party. HDTV cameras cannot handle this with current technology. Panning across a static scene or lateral motion across a static background must proceed very slowly or the result will be unpleasant motion artifacts. If you are staging a ballet that will be made into an HDVD, you should try having a parade start from the rear and head straight to the camera with the marchers peeling off to the right or left. This should substantially reduce motion issues, and is a good example of how the new video technology might affect the choreography and design of a show.

So now for some screenshots. Here's a wedding-party picture showing, from right to left, the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph (William Tuckett), Crown Prince Rudolph (Edward Watson), Empress Elizabeth (Cindy Jourdain), and Princess Stephanie (Iohna Loots), who has just married Rudolf:


Rudolf immediately stirs up a scandal at the wedding party by dancing lasciviously with Princess Louise, Stephanie's sister (Romany Pajdak):


Here Rudolf encounters Countess Marie Larisch (Sarah Lamb) at the wedding party. Larisch was formerly Rudolph's mistress, but this relationship was broken up by the family.  Marie was forced to marry, but she and Rudolf still long for each other. Here the romance almost breaks out again before they are interrupted:


If Larisch can't have Rudolf directly, she can vicariously enjoy him (and get back at her enemies) by procuring other girls for the Crown Prince. Larisch already has a future lover in mind for Rudolf, the then 13-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera (Mara Galeazzi). Here Rudolf meets Mary for the first time (still at the wedding party). Also kneeling is Mary's mother (Elizabeth McGorain), who will stop at nothing to promote her daughter in the eyes of the Crown Prince:


Rudolf seeks help and advice from his mother. Aloof and absorbed with her own problems, she finds her son revolting and has nothing for him:


Poor Princess Stephanie. She must have known that her husband had other women.  But nothing could have prepared for this wedding night:


After assaulting Sophie with gunplay, Rudolph abuses her mentally and physically in a furious pas de deux (that defies any screenshot of the actually dancing):


Want to consummate?


Time passes. Stephanie has a baby. Rudolf forces her to go with him "incognito" to low-life places such as this tavern crawling with whores and Hungarians (of separatist ilk):


At the tavern is Mitzi Caspar, a high-class prostitute (Laura Morera). Mitzi became Rudolf's regular mistress after Larisch was forced to marry. Mitzi went to Brussels with Rudolph when Rudolph conducted the marriage negotiations for Stephanie's hand. And Mitzi is still seeing Rudolf. Rudolf has formed his plan to commit suicide, and he asks Mitzi to die with him. She denounces him to the Imperial secret police.


Pressure is building on Rudolf. His mother and wife detest him, and his mistress has betrayed him. Larisch, who has been working on Mary and her mother to enflame them with an interest in Rudolf, sees it is time to strike. She brings Mary, now about 16, to Rudolf's chambers for her second meeting with him. She is dressed in a warm robe and a thin nightgown:


What you might call a bodice slipper:


There follows the most erotic pas de deux ever published in HDVD:


I was using this a screen saver until my wife told me to take it down:


This angle ends the 1st Rudolf/Mary pas de deux. To the right you see the curtain dropping:


Mary was thrilled by the prospect of loving the man who would one day be emperor. The proposition he soon made her was more than thrilling: she could have him to herself only and truly forever.  Here is the making of the suicide pact from the 2nd Rudolf/Mary pax de deux:


Now we finally are at Mayerling, the hunting lodge. Here are scenes from the 3rd Rudolf/Mary pas de deux, the dance of death:


Now the couple approaches the table with the pistol:


Within 90 seconds both will be dead:


These screen shots are focused mostly on four stupendous pas de deux scenes. But other interesting characters, all historically accurate (more or less), appear in several subplots. I've seen this production quite a few times over several years; each time I notice new things and gain a better understanding of Rudolf and Mary. This is a work with staying power.

We are so fortunate to have this title. Mayerling is an obscure ballet. Few have seen it, and there are only a couple of old videos available. But now with this fabulous production and can fully appreciate what an excellent ballet Mayerling is. How many other fine ballets are waiting for us to discover thru the magic of HDVD?