Mayerling, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling isn't a conventional choice for a first-time ballet. It traces the decline of Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, from his marriage to his death in a suicide pact with his teenaged mistress. This really isn't The Nutcracker.

So it's a bold choice for the Royal Ballet's Paul Hamlyn First Night. This scheme encourages first-time audiences with a promotion aimed at Sun readers, supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. MacMillan's long, involved story has a level of detail that makes the programme synopsis required reading. It also has sex, violence and a gallery of big dramatic roles. This first night had some underpowered performances, but the ballet still makes an impact. The fresh audience responded with cheers.

Edward Watson was a cautious Rudolf. In solos, he goes through MacMillan's jagged, anguished lines without bringing out Rudolf's despair. In the many complex duets, his musical timing isn't sharp enough: he gets to the peak of a lift, but blurs its full dramatic weight.

He's not much helped by Mara Galeazzi as the doomed Mary Vetsera. There's some fresh dancing in the early scenes but Galeazzi doesn't get this aristocratic groupie's darkness, her readiness to fall in with Rudolf's morbid fantasies. Their best moment came when he runs his hands over her head. Suddenly, Watson shows you that Rudolf is feeling the skull beneath her skin.

MacMillan surrounds Rudolf with a court full of scheming and unhappy people. The company performance needs more drive and focus, but there are already some fine performances here. The Countess Larisch, Rudolf's former mistress, clings to power by finding him new women. Sarah Lamb's fluent dancing has a manipulative glint.

In one of MacMillan's finest scenes, Rudolf's young wife waits for her wedding night. Iohna Loots is petulant with nerves, shrugging off her fussing attendants before going resolutely to meet her new husband. When he threatens her with a pistol, she's terrified and almost disbelieving: how can this be happening?

Laura Morera, as the prostitute Mitzi Caspar, purrs stylishly through her tavern dances. The other standout performance came from young Sergei Polunin, who dances with virtuoso flourish as one of the Hungarian officers.

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