Most of Act I occurs on Rudolf’s wedding day. He openly flirts with his new sister-in-law (Princess Louise), is caught in a compromising position with his ex-mistress (Countess Marie Larisch), and terrifies his wife (Princess Stéphanie) on their bridal night. Though Rudolf is at the center of court life, he is alienated from it — and he’s strongly sympathetic (though MacMillan fails to make this clear) to the cause of Hungarian secession.
Ballet, with partnering and pointwork as central components, is an essentially Romantic art. “Mayerling” shows an uncannily profound sense of the morbid heart of 19th-century Romanticism. Rudolf — like so many heroes and heroines of that century’s dramas and novels — seeks redemption, escape, alternatives. He does so by means of adultery, drink, an obsession with skulls and guns, and morphine.
It’s astonishing how these ingredients are built into a framework for the ballet’s many pas de deux — above all the phenomenal duets, acrobatically and intensely sexual, that conclude each of the three acts. Sex is always an undercurrent in ballet’s view of heterosexual relations; MacMillan brings it to the surface.
Act I ends with the happy-never-after wedding night of Rudolf and Stéphanie, in which he plays with a skull, fires a pistol, and treats her with violence. Act II ends with his first consummation with his final mistress, Mary Vetsera, who at once shows she is on his skull-gun-sex wavelength. And Act III culminates in a series of duets in which Mary and he, now addicted to morphine, make clear how guns and death — and sex — can bring them the release they both crave.
When “Mayerling” was new, ballet audiences had never seen duets of such sustained, unpretty sexual intensity. Almost 40 years later, they remain viscerally exciting, and it’s brilliant how MacMillan makes us see them (and the ballet’s other duets) from the points of view of both man and woman.
Dancers who have played Rudolf describe this as the Everest of male ballet roles. Apart from its titanic partnering requirements, Rudolf has solos in each act charting his descent from questing elegance to psychological torment; we’re shown his reactions to 15 or more different people.
Even here, though, MacMillan’s response to…