When Peter Wright’s production of The Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet was given its premiere on 20th December 1984, gala guests were treated to free champagne and souvenir booklets. No expense was spared: the booklets had to be hastily reprinted because the scenario was wrong. The downstairs foyers of the Opera House were lavishly decorated and members of the audience were invited to wear evening dress.
The opening night of this year’s revival was relayed live to cinemas where viewers could wear whatever they liked (as they can in the House). The film director, Ross MacGibbon, is a former Royal Ballet dancer who appeared in the Act II Arabian dance at the very first performance. Over the decades since the glittering premiere, dancers who started their careers as mice and toy soldiers have become ballet masters and coaches. Lesley Collier, Wright’s first Sugar Plum Fairy, is one of the current Nutcracker coaches.
This year’s opening cast in named roles is much the same as last year’s, so the company evidently felt confident enough to screen the performance right at the start of the run. In a programme interview, Sir Peter recalled alarming technical problems with the tree in 2001, after the House had reopened. Drosselmeyer’s magic tricks didn’t work and snowflake dancers slipped on the artificial snow. No such problems (so far) in the latest revival. The Christmas season has got off to a splendid start in London, with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, already running in Birmingham, coming to the Royal Albert Hall at the end of December. English National Ballet’s Nutcracker opens at the Coliseum on 13th December.
In the Royal Ballet’s version, the story has become Drosselmeyer’s rescue mission, with young Clara acting as his unconscious agent. He’s a Time Lord, who can transport her from a Victorian Christmas party at home to a fantastic region where Julia Trevelyan Oman’s delicate designs suggest the 18th century. The ornate white and gold set for Act II is a scaled-up version of the iced cake decoration seen in Act I, before the children demolish it. The performers in the Kingdom of the Sweets have already appeared in Act I as characters in a Christmas Eve parade, and as tiny spectators of the battle with the mice.
Gary Avis has made the role of Drosselmeyer his own, full of delightful details that differ from year to year (and maybe in each performance). He warms his hands at a candle after opening his workshop door to despatch his impish assistant into the snow at the very start of the ballet; he inspects the children’s toys, planning their use in the battle, while Clara dances with her admirer at the party. He’ll be toast, once she’s met the transformed Nutcracker, Hans-Peter, Drosselmeyer’s abducted nephew.
Drosselmeyer is rewarded with the grandest of entrances into the Stahlbaum’s party, swirling his vast turquoise and gold cloak as his assistant (David Yudes) introduces him to the guests. Yudes appears to bound on springs as he presents Drosselmeyer’s automata – mechanical dolls that will turn nasty at midnight, perhaps seeking revenge on their maker.
Clara’s gift of an ugly nutcracker doll is a talisman that will lead her into another dimension, where toys are (almost) as tall as she is and the Mouse King (Nicol Edmonds) towers over his army of mice. Francesca Hayward as Clara has the shining innocence of a child and the fluency and musicality of a born dancer. She’s now a principal, apparent when her Clara matures swiftly into a ballerina to rival those she meets in the Kingdom of the Sweets.
A feisty youngster, she really thumps the Mouse King before the Nutcracker soldier finishes him off. I love the way that when Hans-Peter (Alexander Campbell) is revealed without the nutcracking head, he presents himself formally to Clara as a danseur noble, with a nice line in arabesques. Tchaikovsky’s music for the transformation scene into the snowy forest is so ecstatic that the pas de deux for the youngsters has to be a grown-up one with rapturous lifts. After Hans-Peter kisses Clara’s hand, they seem an engaged royal couple, departing in a gilded sleigh, blessed by angels.
Act II is Drosselmeyer’s dream of a divertissement to entertain Clara and his nephew, whose transformation hasn’t surprised him in the least – yet. The happy youngsters join in the dances, magically knowing the steps in advance. When Hayward dances alongside Yasmine Naghdi, the leading Rose Fairy, the contrast in their styles is captivating. Naghdi is diamond sharp, accentuating each pose, while Hayward is pearly, flowing without pausing. The Waltz of the Flowers concludes with the Rose Fairy held high by her escorts, in a tableau like that of the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. Clara is indeed being treated as a royal princess, another Aurora, not a bourgeois teenager.
The Grand pas de deux was splendidly danced by Sarah Lamb as a spun-sugar Fairy and Steven McRae as her attentive prince. Lamb was decorous and regal, unfazed by technical difficulties, while McRae had toned down his virtuoso showiness. The gorgeous music for the pas de deux is almost melancholy – a farewell to enchantment.
Drosselmeyer restores Clara to reality, with a final blessing from her guardian angel. She encounters Hans-Peter in the street outside her house as he asks directions to his uncle’s – now they’ll know each other’s address. This time, Drosselmeyer is overjoyed to see his nephew again: the wicked spell, like Wright’s beguiling ballet, is over until the next performance.