21 Dec Update – this has now been cancelled and replaced by a 2017 recording of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Royal Ballet will stream The Nutcracker (in a different cast) on 22 Dec at 7pm, £16, via www.roh.org.uk available on demand until 21 Jan.
There’s no reason to feel short-changed by the Royal Ballet’s Covid-compliant Nutcracker. The abridging has been skilfully done by ballet masters Gary Avis and Samantha Raine, keeping the splendour of Peter Wright’s 1984 production while limiting the number of performers. Though fewer children are involved, the magic of Tchaikovsky’s music and the beauty of the dancing still enchant spectators of all ages.
Wright’s original version has undergone many revisions over the years. His adaptation of the story, loosely based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s surreal tale, has remained the same. The magician, Drosselmeyer, contrives the rescue of his nephew, Hans-Peter, who has been transformed into a wooden nutcracker toy (for reasons best known to Hoffmann). Drosselmeyer’s agent is teenage Clara, brave and resourceful. In this latest account of her coming-of-age journey, her reward is the ardour of the Nutcracker-nephew. Her visit to the Kingdom of the Sweets in Act II is an entertaining distraction, until the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier show the two youngsters what a wonderful fulfilment a mature partnership could be. That assurance, with Tchaikovsky’s grandly elegiac music for the Grand pas de deux, must touch the hardest of hearts.
The Act I Christmas party in the Stahlbaum’s house is dominated by Gary Avis’s Drosselmeyer, Clara’s charismatic godfather. Avis is both avuncular and glamorous in his swirling turquoise cape, scattering clouds of glitter. The streamlined party has fewer guests and only four children, other than Clara’s small brother, Fritz. We are spared the Dancing Mistress and her charges, as well as the indulgent dances for little girls nursing dolls and boys charging around with noisy toy instruments. No invasions from outside the household by carnival figures with grotesque heads – the only intruders are the life-size automata dancers, who turn nasty once the guests have left.
Clara (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) is already old enough to have an admirer (Benjamin Ella). O’Sullivan stays girlish and excited in the party scene, until she’s ready to experience the stirrings of first love in her dream encounter with Hans-Peter (James Hay). But first she has to prove herself in the midnight battle between rapacious rats and red-coat soldiers. Will Tuckett has choreographed military manoeuvres for eight company members in place of skirmishes for mini-mice, toy soldiers and rabbit drummer. Clara biffs the outsize King Rat (Nicol Edmonds) with a pointe shoe, thereby saving the valiant Nutcracker and ensuring his transformation into handsome Hans-Peter.
Hay, in his hussar’s uniform, has the bearing of a danseur noble, an ideal companion for an adolescent ballerina-to-be. Their first pas de deux in the snowy woodland is freshly romantic and classically restrained: he kisses her hand in gratitude, a promise of future commitment. They are blessed by some angels and just 16 snowflakes instead of the usual 24. The reduction in numbers doesn’t matter because the stage is filled with carefully distanced flurries, if without the accompaniment of a children’s choir. Avis’s Drosselmeyer kindly reassures his nephew that all is working out well. In a nice touch, Hay glances back twice at Avis as the angel-drawn sled transports him and Clara to the Kingdom of the Sweets.
Act II is no longer a cornucopia of confectionery from different countries. It is Drosselmeyer’s domain, giving his protégés the chance to try out different ways of dancing. The Spanish and Arabian dances have been eliminated: a relief because they outstay their welcome and the trio of men manhandling a sultry woman is dodgy as well as tedious. The Chinese number is now a circus tumbling act; the Mirlitons with their little flutes are down to a perky quartet. There’s luxury casting for the Waltz of the Flowers, led by Claire Calvert. O’Sullivan, who seems a tad too mature when she joins in so confidently with the Mirlitons, appears an exuberant girl again in comparison with Calvert’s matronly Rose Fairy.
When it’s time for the Grand pas deux, Clara and Hans Peter sit respectfully on either side of the stage. The orchestra in the pit is joined by players of the harp, celeste and tubular bells in a box to the left of the proscenium arch. Tchaikovsky’s choice of instruments describes a Sugar Plum we’ve barely met, who has a profound relationship to sublime music for a pas de deux with an anonymous partner. All is well, however, because the couple are Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov at their lustrous best. Nuñez addresses her dancing to everyone on stage and to the audience, giving value to every step and gesture. Her Sugar Plum variation is the finest filigree, radiating her joy at being on stage. Muntagirov floats his leaps in his solo and matches her line impeccably when he joins her for the coda.
Even as the magic of the pas de deux unfolds, there’s a sadness that it must soon be over. The ballet will end in the resolution of the story Wright devised so artfully. Even more poignant is the awareness of how fragile this experience of a live art form is at present. Compromises have to be made, precautions taken, money lost, so that the hours of rehearsal and years of training can culminate in performances in front of an audience. Friday’s audience, masked and distanced, responded whole heartedly, cheering the conductor, Koen Kessels, for doing Tchaikovsky’s score justice with a reduced number of musicians. There were ovations for the dancers, sparkling with the glitter Avis threw over them during curtain calls.
Let’s hope viewers at home will be able to enjoy the projected streaming of the production on 22nd December. But not even Drosselmeyer’s magic could prevent the closure of the House again, with live performances of The Nutcracker cancelled until further notice.