Adrian Hamilton: A masterful ballet to die for

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A tale of drugs, sex, debauchery and madness," say the ads for the Royal Ballet's current revival of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling. Even Opera Rara's performance of Donizetti's Maria di Rohan next month is being pitched as "Death, Duels and Love". Yes. And Hamlet is about fratricide, suicide and mother fixation and Tosca is about poisoning, execution and suicide.

You can get too po-faced about this, of course. It's a tongue-in-cheek attempt to make classical performance seem exciting. But, aside from the fact that it's patronising to try and sell works in this way, it's also misses the point. Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling to some his finest full-length ballet certainly has plenty of sex, drugs and decadence. It's based on the life and death of Prince Rudolf, the ill-fated son of the Emperor Franz Josef, despised by his father, ignored by his mother, married off against his will to a Belgian princess, a slave to drugs and self-disgust, who finally dies in a suicide pact with an adolescent young mistress procured for him by a previous one. It caused not a few jaws to drop when it was premiered before the Queen Mother in 1978 (although I doubt whether she was that taken aback). And even today it packs a powerful punch as it climaxes in a grim burial of the poor young girl in secret, while the Prince lies in state officially dead of a "heart attack".

But MacMillan's object was not simply to produce a snuff movie in tights. You don't need ballet to do that. Indeed, if that is all you are on about, then ballet with its formalised movements, tends to exaggerate the hysterical to the point of absurdity. Instead it was to portray the individual as a mirror and victim of a society (that of the Hapsburgs) in decline. A tortured, alcoholic and in many ways solitary figure himself as Jann Parry describes in a revealing and hefty new biography (Different Drummer: the Life of Kenneth MacMillan, Faber and Faber) MacMillan makes the story into one of tragic self-destruction, a man driven by demons not all of his own making and a position at court that ensures personal growth is impossible.

It's exactly what Shakespeare, Verdi, Schiller and the other great artists of the solitary figure compelled by fate and their own nature to a tragic end tried to do, to marry the individual with the times, only MacMillan was a choreographer and he paints his picture and propels the narrative through a series of astounding dances set against imperial tableaux, each act climaxing in a pas de deux between Rudolf and one of the women of terrifying intensity.

Now you may find it overwrought and claustrophobic (which in a sense it is meant to be). You can sit back and simply admire, as some do, its inventive choreography rather than the story, the first full-length British ballet centred on a male dancer in the manner of the Russians.

Or you can feel, as I do, that it is one of the most emotionally devastating ballets of our time, a work that achieves through the marriage of Liszt's richly romantic music and MacMillan's unique imagination the great feat of making you feel for and with a dissolute and decidedly unappealing man. And that, in the end, is the only way to sell it a dark masterpiece of doomed destruction.

Small is beautiful

The big exhibitions make all the publicity these days. Understandably. That's where our free-entry museums make their money. But it's the smaller shows that provide the unexpected pleasures of gallery going. Take the British Museum's new display of prehistoric Dogu figures from Japan up the stairs in the exhibition area by the Japanese galleries. It's not even advertised on the main "What's On" page of the museum's website, but it is a little stunner, two rooms of pots and figurines dating from between 2,500 and 300BC. No-one quite knows their purpose. Some sites reveal them deliberately shattered, others carefully buried whole. But they have, like Cycladic art, a primitive force that is at once energetic, mysterious and almost playful.

The wonderful thing about the exhibition is not only that it includes many of the best figures from this period, and that they have been gathered together from a whole range of provincial museums in Japan, but that the show is free presumably courtesy of the sponsors, Mitsubishi Corporation. We have been somewhat starved of exhibitions from the BM's Japanese department of late, after years on which it could be relied on to produce goodies galore. This makes up for it all.

* This has been the 250th anniversary of George Handel, the greatest global musical talent to have made London his home. And if you haven't noticed it, that's because there has been so little special celebration. The ever-devoted Handel Society has done its best, there have been nods in the Proms and down at Glyndebourne. But where has been the month-long festival in the Haymarket or Covent Garden to a German-born artist who gave us his all and some of the finest music ever written?

So all praise to English Touring Opera, which has just completed a multi-opera Handel fest in London. It is now taking it to Malvern, Exeter, Bath, Snape and Cambridge. Five operas in all, including the sublime Ariodante and Alcina and the revival of their recent production of Teseo (which did convince me that it's worth far more than its reputation). ETO's new offering, Flavio, is a model of small-theatre, restrained direction. Simple scenery, proper costumes, first-class singers and let the music sing for itself. Too often, even in some of ETO's productions, there is tendency to try and make the arias more active by being busy busy on stage. The production of this semi-serious opera from 1723 doesn't quite convince me that it is a forgotten masterpiece, but it is immensely entertaining. If anyone moans about the cost of opera and its London-centric obsessions, here's your answer. It can be done on the cheap and it can travel.

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