London, Royal Opera House
23 November 2021
The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker is back to (almost) full strength in time for Sir Peter Wright’s 95th birthday this Wednesday, after being cut back in numbers last Christmas season. Although his 1984 production has undergone many changes over the years, it remains substantially the same family favourite for Royal Opera House audiences: Covid restrictions haven’t affected its enduring charm.
Thanks to Julia Trevelyan Oman’s Biedermeier-era designs, this Nutcracker is set in the first half of the 1800s, when affluent families like the Stahlbaums had servants to assist with their Christmas party. More guests have been invited this year than last, with a larger quota of excited children. Little girls are still expected to be given dolls as presents; boys get soldiers and noisy toy instruments. Fritz, younger brother of the heroine, Clara, is severely reproved rather than indulged for being naughty. Small Sasha Dobrynin-Lait is even more mischievous than he was last year, playing up to Clara’s godfather, the magician Drosselmeyer – Gary Avis, more glittery than ever.
Wright has made his Nutcracker Drosselmeyer’s story. He sets the events, taken from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s gothic tale, in train so that he can rescue his nephew, Hans-Peter (Joseph Sissens), who has been transformed into a grotesque nutcracker. Clara is the agent who saves Hans-Peter from death by the Mouse King (Tomas Mock) and is rewarded by a visit to the Kingdom of the Sweets. Anna Rose O’Sullivan is now too grown up to be a teenage Clara with a sweet tooth – she’s obviously a Sugar Plum ballerina in waiting. (She’ll make her debut in the role later in the run).
Avis’s Drosselmeyer entertains the party guests with magic tricks, an icing sugar Christmas cake and two sets of dancing dolls, who turn nasty after midnight. He gives Clara the hard-to-love nutcracker toy, which she favours over her admirer at the party. Handsome Leo Dixon is miscast as a boy in too-short trousers – and why is tall young Nadia Mullova-Barley cast as an elderly grandmother, with Philp Mosely a parody of a grandfather, decrepit in a wheelchair? Casting choices appear very odd since, with many performances to come, there’s no longer the need to give as many dancers as possible the chance to appear on stage.
However, the battle between mini-mice and toy soldiers has remained reduced to avoid risking children’s health. The combatants are now older students from the Royal Ballet’s Upper School, their military manoeuvres arranged, as last year, by Will Tuckett. No children’s choir for the snow scene, though the snowflakes are back up in numbers, flurrying very effectively once again, along with a contingent of eerily gliding angels to guide Clara and Hans-Peter to the Kingdom of the Sweets in Act II.
Drosselmeyer introduces them to the rulers of the fantasy realm, Marianela Nunez as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Vadim Muntagirov as her prince. Sissens tells them what brought him there with Clara in graphic mime, interspersed with buoyant leaps. He’s an elegant dancer who needs to learn how to be an impeccable partner by watching Muntagirov in the ballet’s grand pas de deux.
First, though, he and Clara have fun joining in dances by an array of entertainers who used to be associated with food and drink from different countries. The divertissements have been shortened and purged of national stereotyping. The Chinese pair are simply acrobatic tumblers; the Arabian number, which always went on for too long, is now for a generically exotic dancer with a single strapping partner; no more manhandling by three escorts. The Spanish jota and Russian gopak remain as before, though I suppose they could be accused of being inaccurate cultural appropriations. It’s a 19th century ballet fantasy, for heaven’s sake, not a politically correct documentary.
The big ensemble number is Wright’s Waltz of the Flowers, led by Yuhui Choe as the Rose Fairy. She’s outdanced by O’Sullivan’s Clara, who then gives way to Nunez’s supreme Sugar Plum Fairy. Nunez phrases every moment of Ivanov’s choreography so beautifully, considerately partnered by Muntagirov, that they make the pas de deux a declaration of what ballet can convey. It bypasses cerebral understanding, directly affecting the nervous system, as Tchaikovsky must have known when he composed his loveliest music. Although the Sugar Plum variation, danced to the tinkling celeste, is delicious, the coda to the pas de deux makes you want to cry because it will be over so soon.
The story must end with Clara’s return to her family home after her dream adventure. Wright has devised a satisfactory conclusion by having her encounter Hans-Peter in the street outside her house. Wondering if she recognises him, she directs him to Drosselmeyer’s workshop, where nephew and uncle are re-united. It’s a triumphant ending to a ballet that works its magic time and again (and whose magic effects worked wonderfully on Tuesday’s opening night). Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker may be played ad nauseam in shops and public spaces over Christmas, but the ballet for which he wrote it is the real deal – especially in this production.