BWW Review: The Houston Ballet's season opener MAYERLING Brings Drama to Life at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
Houston has had its share of drama in the last few short weeks, and the city's downtown theater venues are reeling from the blow.
As a result of Hurricane Harvey, the Alley Theatre has sustained devastating flood damage and, to a lesser degree, the Houston Symphony's Jones Hall, although it is performance-ready.
The home of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, the Wortham Theater Center, was not so fortunate. The entire Houston Ballet season is affected, and there is a scramble for available theater space throughout the city.
The Hobby Center, undamaged by the storm, has stepped up with a space for three performances of MAYERLING September 22, 23 and 24.
And the show goes on.
This is no small feat. Moving sets, costumes, lighting and a full company of dancers, unexpectedly, on short notice, to a space with different stage dimensions, house capacity, layout, sound - a hundred variables to be dealt with - is miraculous, and all concerned should be congratulated. I can only imagine the effort.
But it was worth it. As Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his introductory curtain speech, the cultural life of Houston is a vital part of our city, and it must continue.
And continue, it will.
Sir Kenneth MacMillan's MAYERLING is ballet with a capital "B". First produced in London's Covent Garden in 1978, its scale and choreography were a nod to the grand extravaganzas of another time. Sets and costuming were sumptuous. Audiences were enraptured.
So, here we are in post-Harvey Houston in September 2017, barely dry and still shaken, and the Houston Ballet is the first North American company to perform this compelling production.
Did the Houston Ballet deliver? In a word, yes. And then some.
The first-night audience seemed rather giddy to be out and about, and the anticipation that attends such nights was palpable.
The house was full. There was a bobble or two as Wortham ushers struggled with the seating layout of a strange theater, but that was to be expected, and no one seemed overly perturbed by it. Good nature was the order of the evening.
Then Maestro Ermanno Florio took the podium and the magic began.
The Imperial Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary in 1889 had ruled since 1273 and were getting noticeably frayed around the edges. Six hundred years will do that, what with the usual consanguinity and such.
The Emperor Franz Josef and his wife, the Empress Elisabeth, were married by arrangement at an early age, and the duties of court, compounded by a demanding and controlling mother-in-law, had taken its toll. They were politely estranged, and each carried on their own affairs.
Their son, Crown Prince Rudolf, grew up in this atmosphere of intrigue and mistrust, largely separated from his parents, and brought up to be the heir. It was a difficult and loveless childhood.
The story opens with a prologue, a dark and murky scene in a cemetery, where a burial is hastily performed, and the curtain comes down.
When it rises again, we are in a brilliantly-lit ballroom, with dozens of richly-dressed courtiers dancing and drinking the health of the royal newlyweds, Prince Rudolf (Connor Walsh) and Princess Stephanie (Melody Mennite). The prince has been duly married, against his will, and he makes no attempt to hide it.
He spurns his bride, and carries on an open flirtation with an old lover.
A word here about the prince's old lovers. There are so many that the program, no doubt trying to be helpful, lists "Baroness Mary Vetsera, his mistress," "Countess Marie Larisch, ex-mistress of Rudolf," and "Mitzi Casper, a high-class prostitute, Rudolf's regular mistress." There are others, one assumes, too numerous to mention.
After humiliating Princess Stephanie at the ball, Rudolf finds her in their bridal chamber, where he acts rather off-balance for a groom, brandishing a skull in her face and threatening to shoot her with a pistol he keeps on his dressing table. He even fires into the air, and tries to convince Stephanie to commit suicide with him. She refuses, and he throws her around roughly before he forces her onto the bed and brutally consummates the marriage.
In Act II, in a misguided attempt to entertain Princess Stephanie, Rudolf takes her, in disguise, to a tavern of ill repute, frequented by prostitutes and their clients, including Rudolf's "regular mistress", Mitzi (Yuriko Kajiya). He carries on with her unabashed, and Stephanie is miserable. She soon takes her leave, but Rudolf hardly notices as he continues his carousing.
Outside the tavern he encounters the Baroness Helene Vetsera (Barbara Bears) and her daughter Mary (Karina Gonzalez) whom she puts forward as Rudolf's next mistress.
There is really no reason to go on. The story is pure melodrama, but it's basically historically accurate, and that's what makes it believable.
I would suggest that you read a synopsis of the ballet before you go, or at last carefully read the one provided in the program. There are a lot of characters, and they can get a bit confusing.
The center of all this is Connor Walsh, dancing the part of an unhappy, drug-addled, sex-crazed, syphilis-ridden young man past the point of salvation, and the tragedy that is inevitable.
This is a tall order, and requires the acting and dancing ability of a star. Walsh supplies that ability. In virtually every scene, he dances like a mad man, now vigorous, now leaden with drink or remorse, leaping and lifting with incredible strength.
The company stays with him for every step, and the energy crackles on the stage.
Because of the temporary venue, there will be only two more performances of MAYERLING, Saturday, September 23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 24, at 2 p.m.
Whatever your plans, change them and go see this rare treat.
Performances of MAYERLING are scheduled for Saturday, September 23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 24, at 2 p.m. at Sarofim Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, visit houstonballet.org.