MAYERLING | London, Royal Opera House

Kenneth MacMillan’s 1978 masterpiece is based on the real-life 1889 suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, at his hunting lodge in a village called Mayerling. Bookended by a miserable funeral in the rain, the majority of the action takes place in an ochre dream, where sumptuous gold and red ball gowns dance against a backdrop of tapestries and oil paintings. As the story journeys towards its brutal end, harsher whites and greens begin to sting the scene.

The principal role demands hardly leaving the stage across the ballet’s three hours, and is an astonishing feat of physical and mental strength, conveying the prince’s toxic relationships and increasingly tortured mind with a wildly expressive fusion of contemporary and classical styles.

Although Liszt’s music, the story and the production design naturally lend a classical feel, the audience is constantly jabbed out of this false sense of security by unpredictable contemporary choreography. Prince Rudolf and his lovers fight with gravity-defying full body spins, while the working ladies of a local tavern are pure Fosse, parading menacingly with hands pressed against their arched backs.

One of the most impressive things about this production is that Liszt never even wrote a ballet — you’d never know it. The music has been masterfully adapted from other works, and fits perfectly to convey the shifting drama. MacMillan’s choreography sometimes works with the score incredibly subtly: a slow clasp of two hands is met with thundering timpani and brass; a kiss is synchronised with a piercing jolt of woodwind. While some may find the excessive running time necessarily builds to an anti-climax, there’s no denying that forty years on, this production continues to astound.

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