Gripping Psychological Drama and Dance Collide in Mayerling at Houston Ballet

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

History should always look as good as it does in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling, a beautifully grim take on a scandalous chapter from 19th-century Hapsburg history now playing on the Houston Ballet stage.

The scandalous chapter refers to the 1889 murder-suicide committed by Rudolf, the Crown Prince of Austria. His victim? His 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, who he shot before taking his own life. The crime occurred at a hunting lodge in Mayerling, which lends its name to both the ballet and the so-called “incident” as it’s commonly referred.

Fun (and by fun, I mean ghoulish) fact: Rudolf was the only son of the emperor, making him the only heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Following his death, the heir became Franz Ferdinand who you may remember from history class as the archduke whose assassination kicked off World War I, a war that ended with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, yeah.

MacMillan’s Mayerling, which originally premiered in 1978, dramatizes the life of Crown Prince Rudolf, from his arranged marriage to Princess Stéphanie to his infamous end. In between, we get peeks into the prince’s psyche, primarily through his relationships with the women in his life, including his mother, Empress Elisabeth; his wife, Princess Stéphanie; his former mistress/current friend(?) Marie Larisch; former lover and prostitute Mitzi Caspar; and, of course, Mary Vetsera.

Interestingly, MacMillan teamed up with writer Gillian Freeman, who he tasked with crafting a scenario (which I’d liken to writing a libretto) for the show. It was an inspired decision that results in a deeply layered and compelling ballet, one that is even more special in its focus on a male character. The last time such a richly drawn, complex male character graced the Houston Ballet stage was, well, the last production of Mayerling back in 2017. Taking on the challenging role of Rudolf is, once again, Connor Walsh.

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Houston Ballet Principal Connor Walsh as Crown Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Walsh’s evolution from seemingly discontent to degenerate prince – violent-prone, gonorrhea-infected, drug-addicted, and death-obsessed – is played with wild-eyed intensity. Incredibly well-acted and superbly nuanced, Walsh’s performance also wows for his ability to utilize his impressive athleticism and strength (put to use, for example, in a serious of increasingly dramatic lifts during Rudolf’s final pas de deux with Mary), without ever distracting from the prince’s weakened, deteriorated state.

Though Rudolf’s psyche is best expressed through his relationships with the women in his life, let’s first speak to his interactions with the other men in his life; specifically, the four Hungarian officers played Ryo Kato, Riley McMurray, Naazir Muhammad and Ryan Williams. He engages in several spirited dance-cussions with the officers, who quite literally badger and push him around regarding his support for the separatist cause. Kato, in particular, was a standout among the officers due to an applause-earning (and applause-deserving) solo.

Aaron Daniel Sharratt’s Emperor Franz Josef is as impenetrable a figure as Rudolf’s father, as Yuriko Kajiya, as Rudolf’s mother the Empress Elisabeth, is cold. The empress is, at best, uninterested in her son, but also at times seemingly disgusted and scared of him. Their complicated relationship is well established in the first act during a heart-aching pas de deux, much of which is spent back to back, emphasizing the disconnect between the two.

Countess Marie Larisch is the most inscrutable character in terms of motive. (Why exactly is she playing matchmaker? Because we know it’s not altruism.) And Jessica Collado maintains that intrigue while also showing flashes of true concern for the prince, with whom her relationship is marked by familiarity.

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Houston Ballet Principal Connor Walsh as Crown Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
On the flip side is Mónica Gómez’s Princess Stéphanie, who we witness being dominated, scandalized and humiliated at the hands of Rudolf. It’s completely understandable that even Simone Acri’s Bratfisch – who delivered short bursts of joyful energy during two sure-to-put-a-smile-on-your-face solos – couldn’t cheer her up.

Karina González receives a light and airy introduction as Mary, and as we glimpse her throughout the first two acts, she is every bit the infatuated school girl. But the tragedy of her relationship with Rudolf is never lost, so by the time they dance their last dance, it’s nothing short of chill-inducing.

Finally, Rudolf’s second-act sojourn to a tavern – beautifully lit to red-hued seediness by lighting designer Lisa J. Pinkham – is electric, and that’s in no small part due to Danbi Kim’s attention-commanding turn as Mitzi Caspar. Astounding is Kim’s ability to always look like the one in complete control of the situation, even as she’s being effortlessly spun, tossed and traded between the male dancers.

The ballet’s score, a cleverly patchworked collection of Franz Liszt works arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery, is deftly performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under Ermanno Florio. The orchestra travels the soundscape, from gloomy, ominous strings and rhythmic pulses to boisterous jaunts and climatic swells. Also, worth noting, a second-act aria sung by mezzo-soprano Ani Kushyan, accompanied by Richard Bado, is an unexpected musical treat.

Pablo Núñez’s towering sets, ornate gowns and crisp uniforms lend an air of grandeur to the proceedings that enhance while never distracting from the toxicity of what we’re witnessing.

In terms of story and emotion, MacMillan’s Mayerling is not unlike the kind of scripted historical dramas we’re used to catching on cable TV and now streaming services, the kind that get all the critical acclaim (deservingly so). Except it also has dance – glorious human feats in their own right performed on a stage live in front of you. If you love dance and dark historical dramas, you won’t want to miss this one.

Performances are scheduled through June 2 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25-$220.
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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.