London, Royal Opera House
11 December 2012
Gallery of 36 pictures by Dave Morgan – Morera / Bonelli cast
Gallery of 36 pictures by Dave Morgan – Marquez / McRae cast
Most of the dancers on stage tonight were not even born when the Royal Ballet’ s current Nutcracker production was new, and many of the audience too may imagine that it’s been a feature of the Christmas season forever. It’s hard to believe now that for more than 20 years after the company took up residence in the Royal Opera House they didn’t have a Nutcracker in their repertoire at all – December might bring Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but London dance-goers got their Tchaikowsky-in-the-snow fix from Festival Ballet. Eventually Rudolf Nureyev made a new production for Covent Garden but it was a non-traditional one, heavy with Freudian overtones, and scarcely lasted a decade, and it wasn’t till 1984 that Peter Wright’s version made its first appearance. The first night was a very posh royal gala, with the front of house foyers decorated with fir boughs and smelling of cinnamon and gingerbread (courtesy of Harvey Nichols, and downstairs only of course in those days), and there was free champagne and Jonathan Cope was the Mouse King.
Since then Wright has made various minor changes, not always for the better; otherwise, we now know exactly what to expect and can look forward to favourite moments and filter out the over-decorated background to Act 2 and enjoy comparing some of the many casts the company puts out (there are over 20 performances this year) with our memories of their predecessors. Not everybody loves it – not everybody loved it when it was new, either – and the endless divertissements in the second half can seem very tedious in less than first-rate hands, but the company almost invariably shows well in Act 1, with everyone from the smallest children to the older character dancers engaged in the action and drawing us into the story. The tree grows – may I never get so old and cynical that I can watch that bit without feeling just a little tearful – the snow falls, and it’s Christmas.
I chose a cast I haven’t seen before, led by Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Bonelli is such a quiet, unshowy dancer that it would be easy just to take him for granted but I value him highly for his elegance, his courtesy and his unobtrusive reliability. Morera had her customary exuberance firmly in check and gave us a wonderful impression of how the role would be done by a glamorous – those eyes! – and grand ballerina, one who was also technically very strong of course. The younger pair who carry most of the story – Clara and Hans-Peter in this version – were Elizabeth Harrod and Brian Maloney: both of them fine dancers but both also perhaps just a little too grown-up and assured to touch our hearts.
Bennet Gartside is new as Herr Drosselmeyer this season – this was just his second performance, I think – and as always he takes an interesting approach. He’s more serious, less of a showman, than we often see – a little melancholy, too, and though he can do tricks for the children with no great effort (or at least he will be able to with a bit more practice), it’s clear that the big effects in the transformation scene are hard magic work, needing all his skill and all his heart. I liked this a lot, especially the way that by the end of the scene his mime had become dancing.
Hikaru Kobayashi’s Rose Fairy was admirably well danced, and I also enjoyed Deirdre Chapman as the Grandmother – done without a trace of caricature and really rather touching – and Christina Arestis as Clara’s mother. It’s a company ballet, though, and on this occasion it was also good to see many of the next generation in demi-soloist roles or in the ensembles: it’s these dancers who will have to carry Nutcracker through the next 10 years and lay down the Christmas memories of tomorrow’s audience.