There are some episodes in history that are morbidly fascinating. The story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary (1858-1889) and his life of excess, frustration, sex and death is one of them. The murder-suicide of the prince and his lover Mary Vetsera at the hunting lodge Mayerling captured the imagination of legendary choreographer Kenneth Macmillan, who created one of the staples of The Royal Ballet’s narrative repertoire in 1978 with Mayerling. This production has remained virtually unchanged since then, with Nicholas Georgiadis’s darkly sumptuous sets still setting the scene for this disturbing drama.

Set to music by Franz Liszt with orchestrations by John Lanchbery, Mayerling, although it lacks a fully coherent score, is musically grand and lavish. Koen Kessels conducts delicately, even though some of the orchestrations are all but subtle. The main cast includes some Royal Ballet royalty like Natalia Osipova, Marianela Núñez and Sarah Lamb, and it was fronted on first night by principal Ryoichi Hirano in his role debut. Hirano only came into his own towards the end of Act II and particularly in Act III, when he conveyed Rudolf’s hopelessness movingly. It is a part quite difficult not to associate with Edward Watson, who made the role his own through the years, and in a way his quirky intensity is missing here. The highlights in this performance came from the fantastic Francesca Hayward in Act I (in the terrifying bedroom scene), a stately Kristen McNally as the Empress, and an intensely dramatic Osipova as Mary Vetsera in Act III.

Perhaps the main problem with this ballet is that you absolutely need to have read the synopsis carefully in order to understand who is who and why things are happening. Rudolf’s actions are of course erratic, but they were motivated by more than just a macabre obsession with death (the political side of the issue is only seen in one scene, and it needs an explanation). It is, however, remarkable that a ballet that is nearly forty years old holds the power to make us feel uncomfortable, particularly in the Act I finale, which ends in the sexual assault of newly-wed Stephanie by her husband.

A ballet like Mayerling requires a particular type of dancer at its centre, not just powerful but also emotionally charged and able to portray the darkness and madness in Rudolf. Hirano lacks a certain darkness, and only shines when obsession takes over towards the end. That left the first half feeling a bit empty, except for the brief glimpses of intensity in the pas de deux. This also left some room for brilliance from other characters, including Alexander Campbell as Bratfisch, who gave some much needed light to this dark tale.

While it is true that Watson’s shadow looms large, this revival sees fantastic dancers taking on new roles, and some of the company’s finest proving once more what they are made of. Although the narrative is muddled with too many characters and a rather complicated plot, it is easy to see why this ballet has endured so much as a showcase piece for the whole company and as a vehicle for its lead. After all, it is a (rather uncomfortable) lesson on twentieth-century history that stills exerts a powerful fascination.

Mayerling is playing at the Royal Opera House until 30 October. For more information and tickets, click here.