As Joseph II of Austria once purportedly said, even a Mozart can produce something with “too many notes.”
After descending the grand staircase at the Palais Garnier, I stopped at one of the pulpits to buy the illustrated program. Before I could say “bonsoir,” the clearly exhausted usher, without looking up, launched into the bilingual mantra she had obviously been repeating all evening: “there is a plot summary in it! Cast list! Y’a un synopsis dedans, of course!”
That’s not a good sign for a story ballet. Especially one based on history that has become a film and television and touristic cliché: the Decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But if we are in SissiLand, as one visitor to the Palace of Schönbrunn once called Vienna, exactly which one of these equally young women on stage is the Empress Sissi? Despite Scene One, my young neighbour and seatmate admitted during intermission that he had no idea that the tense and sad pas de deux with Rudolf in Scene Two had been with his mother. “Maybe she should have stayed inside the same costume from Scene One? “
My neighbour made a nostalgic reference to how Ophuls’s film of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, set in the same Viennese fin de siècle twilight as this, still makes who is who so easy to follow nearly a hundred years later. Then he began to enumerate silent movies that aren’t that hard to understand, either. “Do they ever use inter-titles in ballet?” he suggested, full of hope.
As to this scene, it turns out that consulting the illustrated program afterwards – the one with a Plot summary! Cast list! – won’t help in any case. “SA peine” [a feminine noun in French despite the object] was translated as “HER grief.” Instead of clarifying that Rudolf was reaching out to his mother with HIS grief, he had been somehow upset for her. Which was not the case at all. Confusing.
After that scene with “her” grief, we discovered the anti-hero in a different bedroom playing with guns and skulls and yet another young woman. Who she?
You get the picture, it takes an age to figure out who is who, sort of, as there are just too, too, many anxious women and men in fancy wigs buzzing around. Actually, the wigs help: the redhead, the blonde, the one with bangs. But do wigs mean anything dramatically? I wonder how many in the audience inhaled and sat back and then sat up straight: “oh damn now who is this new woman with long loose dark hair” during Act Three Scene Two? Ha! fooled ya, it’s Sissi’s New Look.
Let’s not even mention my neighbour’s confusion concerning “those four guys who hang out and seem quite loyal to Rudolf, but seem a bit threatening.” “They are Hungarians who want their country to leave the Empire.” “Really? Wow. I never would have guessed that.” It doesn’t help that they do parallel turn-ins à la Russe and in the cast list are not even given one of that plethora of given-names that only a historian could identify (Count Hoyos? Are you serious?) Upon reflection, my neighbour thought that announcing them as “These four mystery men who lurk on the stage and then on the apron have been added to cover the noise and tedium of scene changes” would have been clearer.
I could go on and on about the “hunh?” factor concerning the narrative: imperial boyfriends and girlfriends galore. Then there is Bratfisch, oh god. (Marc Moreau was both funny and touching and danced with zest, but nobody in the audience had a clue as to why he kept popping up in the narrative in the first place). FYI Bratfish is not an old boy-friend, he is the designated Imperial Coachman Loyal To Rudolf Until Death Do Us Part.
Of course I’ve seen this ballet before. But every single time it takes me ages to finally concentrate on the dancers dancing and acting out about something because I’m just too distracted by trying to channel the Almanach de Gotha. I usually fight hard to get to see every cast for a ballet. I only had a ticket for this one. But should another pop up, I will probably say, “not in this lifetime.” Or better yet: “over my dead body.”
So, now, as to the leads: Hugo Marchard’s Rudolf is a brusque and sardonic Laurence Olivier-y Hamlet, utterly confused and repulsed by his compulsive need for women’s approval. Dorothée Gilbert’s Mary Vetsera is more Nureyev’s Clara: she has seen too much of adult life, and tries to mimic it. She has had a theoretical understanding of love, gleaned from overheard gossip provided by the, many, many, women whooshing around her. Her role makes it clear that long before the Internet naive young women were already being groomed by their environment to pleasingly submit to dominant males. I can’t say this pair clicked as “gilbertmarchand” at first, but by the end they convinced me of their “folie à deux.”
I am looking forward to seeing them in Manon”s last pas de deux this summer instead. Perhaps that illustrated program in English translation will contain no more oxymorons such as: “The tragedy reached its tragic conclusion.” And have you ever heard of a “twin suicide?” I’ve heard of the Twin Towers, but as far as I know, few twins were on stage. What was demonstrated at the end of the ballet by the leads was a “murder-suicide.”
Hannah O’Neill, identified as Countess Marie Larisch in the program, grew on me and my seatmate and the audience. She’s the one in the blue dress at first, reddish wig, etc…but with glinting eyes and a unique elegance that went beyond all that — so easy to partner, like Dorothée Gilbert, that every trick seems effortless. O’Neill’s Larisch was the character my seatmate “got” almost at once as an old flame/friend/pimp à la Pompadour. He rooted for her, a discarded girlfriend (out of those too many discarded girlfriends who dominated space on the stage).
As poor Princess Stephanie, the ugly duckling Belgian devout political pawn married off to an Austrian sex maniac, Silvia Saint-Martin came off more as spoiled and stiff rather than frightened or anguished. As Rudolf’s woe-begotten bride remains in costumed variations of white and cream, my neighbour DID understand later on that a woman standing stiffly downstage-left in Act Two was the same character who had been flung about and humiliated at the end of Act One…But then he said, ”but who is she supposed to be in the first place, exactly? She never reacts to anything.”
Mitzi Caspar, what a great role and what waste at the same time. This character appears onstage in Act Two for One Scene that’s all and then hangs around somewhere backstage in costume for an hour and a half waiting for the final curtain calls. Valentine Colasante’s prostitute — joyful and easy-going and gorgeously all there — finished every whirl with unfussy, light, and impressive suspension. With her long neck and relaxed tilts of the head, she was lit from within. Her dance with Marchand’s Rudolf felt trusting and warmly in synch. They even gave us the illusion that the heavily re-orchestrated Liszt had lifted up its head too for a while. That’s so cool: dancers making the music sound better.
Let it be said: the cast on stage was not helped by the languidly-conducted Liszt score that dragged us down. The orchestra provided zero swing or swoop, especially in the last act. My neighbor noted that a lot of the musicians were awfully young. “Is that normal for a Grand Opera?” “No.” Poor dancers, poor us.
As stunning and challenging as MacMillan’s passionate acrobatic pas de deux can be for dancers, this thing called Mayerling ends up delivering an exercise in narrative tedium.