The evening show was enhanced by splendid seats in the Grand Tier, courtesy of my artist singing Katharina Schratt. I could quite see (!) why the ballet staff choose to sit at that level, although my preference has invariably been for the Balcony Stalls.
There has been a lot of anticipation regarding Steven McRae's debut as Rudolph, especially as he was cast as Sarah Lamb, who seemed an unlikely choice for Vetsera. In the event, her injury brought Akane Takada in for an unexpected debut and it proved a thrilling and moving evening.
McRae is such an astonishing technical dancer that none of Rudolph's choreography, even the most extreme partnering, seems to cause him any difficulty at all, itself a remarkable achievement, especially given his relatively modest high and slight stature. It was a real pleasure to see solos which have caused other distinguished dancers executed with such ease, and an ease that doesn't bring superficiality but enables him to explore character unhindered by the need to concentrate on execution. I don't think all his choices convince me: the strutting walk in Act One seems petulant, the drunkenness in the Tavern scene surely overdone (as an experienced drinker, wouldn't he be able to hold his liquor better than that) and I missed those elements of tenderness and charm that Bonelli had so memorably given the role. I don't know that I was moved by his plight but I was hugely impressed by his achievement and, as I have written above, am confident that further performances will enable him to find greater variety and pathos. We mustn't forget that this is a colossal role and that no artist will ever have all the details down for their debut (which makes the achievement of Bonelli and Morera even more remarkable).
Takada was unbelievably good. As with McRae, her technical precision enabled her to articulate very movement with dazzling clarity (that delicious falling over her feet with excitement moment in the Card Scene, those whirling downstage turns as she approaches the gun at the end of Act Three Scene 2) but it was her total immersion in the drama that, if it's not too strong a word, stunned me. A convincing child, almost shy under Rudolph's appraising gaze outside the Tavern, girlishly infatuated, intrigued by the skull and the gun (Larisch had taught her well as those "grooming" moments of choreography show us) and then finding it almost all too easy as her recklessness in the Act Two Bedroom scene turns to boredom. She caught that praying mantis moment at the end of the Act with ferocious glee and then grew almost into compassion and womanhood before the frenzy of the end willing both herself and Rudolph to the climax.
There were good things elsewhere too, and a word of praise for the orchestra which played so well under Martin Yates at all four performances I attended. Kobayashi was a slightly pale Larisch (up against vivid memories of Lamb and Cowley, to say nothing of Collier, Park and Rosato, as well as Mendizabal in the afternoon) and Paul Kay a more Music Hall - rumbustious (if that's the way to describe it) Bratfisch. McNally was a cooler, perhaps less varied Elisabeth than Arestis (who had actually knocked Mendizabal in to the desk in her fury in the afternoon) but I'm always impressed to see these more senior, usually characer cast ladies still elegant and fluid en pointe. Crawford lacked presence as Mitzi but seemed much surer technically than on the last couple of occasions I had seen her (Lilac Fairy, Mistress) even if the Officers (led by Zuchetti) rather over powered her. A special word for Johannes Stephanek, formerly a lovely Lensky who never seemed quite to get the opportunities he deserved, waving farewell as Bay, having partnered Elisabeth most elegantly in their pas de deux.
I don't think this was the most moving performance of Mayerling I have seen but the achievement of McRae and Takada was surely exceptional in its way.
So, looking back, is it invidious to make comparisons between the various casts, allowing for the individual nature of perception and the unique nature of each performance?
For me, the most satisfying cast was Bonelli with Morera and Cowley, Two superb dance actresses (with Morera seizing a late chance so strongly that it made it all the more surprising the opportunity had not previously presented itself) and a natural Prince showing an unanticipated flair for dramatic presentation and created what was for me the most rounded portrayal of Rudolph (all the more remarkable in a debut).
The first night, perhaps over anticipated, didn't quite make the expected effect. Am I alone in finding Watson's actual dancing less satisfying and his portrayal almost too one dimensionally haunted and angst-ridden? My reservations over the last matinée are detailed above and the final show made an impact that was completely unexpected.
Favourites? Campbell as Bratfisch brought the most humanity and maturity to the role and seems incapable of making a movement that doesn't convey character but the other three were all terrific too. Mendizabal just edged it for me as Larisch (even over Cowley and Lamb) with the greatest variety of expression, the most vivid involvement and a sense of scheming brought out of desperation to maintain control. Yanowsky rises effortlessly over the others by sheer strength of dancing and personality, as well as having a pained, haunted quality all her own (which can be seen in her son too) although Arestis also brought something very particular to the role, whilst Avis has the most natural authority as the Emperor (as well as the most charm as Bay). Hayward and (possibly surprisingly) Choe brought something more to Stephanie than just timidity and fear (why did Maguire not dance this? There was no announcement on the cast sheet and she isn't injured as she danced a lovely Louise). Nunez would be the pick of the Mitzis for glamour and technique, although I also very much liked Stix-Brunell. Some superb work from assorted Officers (Ball, Campbell, Edmonds and Zuchetti in particular stood out for me) and a sense that here was a company at this top of its form for this particular repertoire.
Idle speculation: I'm not always bothered with literal chronology but as it was flagged up earlier it seems to be there is something odd going on in Act 2. Rudolph is interested to Vetsera after the Tavern scene which is followed by the Card Scene and Vetsera's letter, which is delivered by Larisch in the following Birthday scene by which time Stephanie is heavily pregnant, which she wasn't in Scene One (so, despite how it reads on stage, there has to be some time lapse between outside the Tavern and the Cards).
Idle speculation 2: there have been several comments as to these performances marking Watson's last Rudolphs. Even if the ballet is back in 18/19, will Bonelli and Soares still be dancing the role and, if not, who might be (or who might be in addition)?. McRae has shown that if the dancer is strong enough as a partner height and stature needn't be a hindrance, which would open the way to Campbell's superb dance technique and intelligence (and he partnered Mendizabal extremely well in Two Pigeons) and I'd also be very interested to see Nicol Edmonds, who has impressed me very much on the last few occasions I have seen him both as dancer and presence.