Houston Ballet's Dark Mayerling Still Dazzles

Karina Gonzalez as Baroness Mary Vetsera and Connor Walsh as Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling.
Karina Gonzalez as Baroness Mary Vetsera and Connor Walsh as Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet

Sex, drugs and pas de deux? In the Houston Ballet’s American premiere of Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Mayerling – a portrait of a man’s eventual downfall with the scope of an epic and an attention to detail and subtly usually seen in film – yes, please.

In Mayerling, the life of Crown Prince Rudolf (Connor Walsh), in line for the Austro-Hungarian throne, is slowly revealed through his relationships with the women in his life: his mother, Empress Elisabeth (Jessica Collado); his wife, Princess Stéphanie (Melody Mennite); his former mistress, Countess Marie Larisch (Sara Webb); his favorite prostitute, Mitzi Caspar (Yuriko Kajiya); and Baroness Mary Vetsera (Karina Gonzalez), his mistress and eventual partner in murder-suicide.

Yes, the ballet is based on the real-life “Mayerling incident,” in which the Crown Prince did in fact kill his teenage lover before turning a gun on himself in 1889. One of the most interesting aspects of Mayerling is the participation of writer Gillian Freeman. MacMillan recruited Freeman to craft a scenario – basically write a libretto – for the show, which premiered in 1978. Its timing and Freeman’s contribution may explain why Mayerling has a grittier, more cynical feel – one that is often associated with the realism and cinéma véritié of the era.

In a sense, Mayerling is the balletic equivalent to Robert Frank’s Rolling Stones documentary, Cocksucker Blues. Both are gritty and uncompromising as they strip away the glamour of celebrity in one and royalty in the other, leaving behind the flawed, immoral and at times banal world underneath, where indulgence and debauchery become the only ways to tolerate existing in such a place.

Macmillan refuses to romanticize Rudolph and yet, for all his flaws – his active participation in excess, his brutal treatment of his wife, his fixation on death – he remains a sympathetic, pitiable character. Walsh embodies the result of a lifetime in a gilded cage; disillusioned and disappointed, he continues to seek out connections, but finds himself rejected repeatedly.

Mayerling isn’t exactly one of MacMillan’s most famous ballets – like Romeo and Juliet or Manon – or infamous, for that matter – The Judas Tree will take that title – but chances are that if you are familiar with it, you know that the role of Rudolf is widely considered to be one of, if not the, most difficult, challenging roles for men in classical ballet, though you wouldn’t know it by watching Walsh.

Walsh commands the stage and the demands of the role – both in terms of dance and in terms of acting, which Mayerling requires from all its cast. From his relatively composed state in the first act until he spins completely out of control in the third, Walsh goes on an impressive journey, and he’s not alone.

click to enlarge
Connor Walsh as Prince Rudolf and Sara Webb as Countess Marie Larish in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Working opposite the best the Houston Ballet has to offer has to be an advantage and boy, did he have the best. Kajiya dazzled as Rudolf’s favorite prostitute Mitzi, particularly in her group dance with the Hungarian officers (Ryo Kato, Rhys Kosakowski, Linnar Looris and Jared Matthews). Webb is elusive as Marie Larisch. She both toys with Rudolf and shows the most genuine concern for him, distraught at their last encounter. It’s also apparent in their pas de deux that she’s the closest to being Rudolf’s equal. Mennite is a low-key tragic figure in the story. Humiliated by her husband in public and in private, it’s easy to imagine her own trajectory, one that maybe leads to the creation of a character like Empress Elisabeth.

Collado as Empress Elisabeth shares some of the production’s most powerful scenes with Walsh, capturing in their pas de deux, a seemingly impossible sense that they are both in sync but completely disconnected from each other. Their dance in the first act, in Empress Elisabeth’s apartment, is erotically charged and terribly sad, as Walsh continues to beg for her sympathy, for her love, and receives only cold rejection.

The moments shared between Walsh and Collado stand in stark contrast to those between him and Gonzalez as Mary Vetsera. Gonzalez is girlish and impulsive as Mary, and you can easily imagine Mary seeing a prince when she looks at Walsh’s Rudolf instead of the broken drug addict he actually is. She is swept up in the moment, an enabler of sorts, but also a harbinger of salvation; when Gonzalez stands above Walsh in the third act, she resembles nothing short of an angel of death. Their final dance exudes such passionate desperation and includes such beautiful passes that it is worth the price of admission alone.

The music of Franz Liszt, arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery, and performed here by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under Ermanno Florio, in turns enhances the unease and stress while also providing a sweeping score. In particular, you’ll be hearing the haunting piano motif in your dreams for nights to come.

The lush costumes and brilliant sets were complemented beautifully by great effects utilized throughout the show, including rain, a fireworks display, and the spotlight falling center stage on the female characters to punctuate the end of certain scenes.

Before the show, Mayor Sylvester Turner emerged from behind the curtain to speak, to remind the audience of the vibrancy of Houston and its arts community, and Mayerling did not disappoint. The switch from the out-of-commission Wortham to the Hobby (thanks to the destructive flooding from Hurricane Harvey) was far from seamless (in fact, it was “seats assigned to rows that didn’t exist” chaotic), but understandable, and the quality of the performance wasn’t affected at all, which for all that’s going on, is pretty impressive in and of itself.

Performances are scheduled through September 24 at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. September 23 and 2 p.m. September 24 at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $30-$90.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.