Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker Returns to the Royal Ballet so it is Officially Christmas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (choreography by Peter Wright): Soloists, corps de ballet, London Oratory Junior Choir, The Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Barry Wordsworth (conductor). Broadcast to Cineworld Basildon from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. 5.12.2017. (JPr)

The Nutcracker Act II (c) Karolina Kuras

Choreography – Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov
Original scenario – Marius Petipa
Production and scenario – Peter Wright
Designer – Julia Trevelyan Oman
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Production consultant – Roland John Wiley
Staging – Christopher Carr

Cast included:
Herr Drosselmeyer – Gary Avis
Clara – Francesca Hayward
Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker – Alexander Campbell
The Sugar Plum Fairy – Sarah Lamb
The Prince – Steven McRae

Spanish Dance – Olivia Cowley, Tomas Mock, Nathalie Harrison, Erico Montes, Hannah Grennell, Kevin Emerton
Arabian Dance – Melissa Hamilton, Reece Clarke, David Donnelly, Téo Dubreuil
Chinese Dance – Leo Dixon, Calvin Richardson
Russian Dance – Tristan Dyer, Paul Kay
Dance of the Mirlitons – Elizabeth Harrod, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Mayara Magri, Romany Pajdak
Waltz of the Flowers – Yasmine Naghdi (Rose Fairy), Matthew Ball, William Bracewell, Nicol Edmonds, James Hay (Escorts), Claire Calvert, Fumi Kaneko, Itziar Mendizabal, Beatriz Stix-Brunell (Leading Flowers)

I have thoroughly enjoyed English National Ballet’s Nutcracker in recent years (review click here), where – as is often the case – all the fantasy and romance is just Clara’s dream because she is on the cusp of puberty and her hormones are kicking in. However, Wayne Eagling’s version still lacks something in dramatic coherence. With interest I returned to Sir Peter Wright’s 1984 staging after much too long a time away and was encouraged to read his synopsis telling of how ‘the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll.’ This was in retaliation for the ‘timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks’ killing half of the mouse population in a royal palace. To break the spell the Nutcracker must commit an act of great bravery and be redeemed by the love of a young girl.

Having first seen Peter Wright’s Nutcracker in 1984 (and a few times thereafter) I had forgotten that, however good this looks on paper, little of this is explained on stage (apart for some extended mime for the Nutcracker in Act II). The story seems as irrelevant and hard-to-follow as ever. It just provides a glittering (sometimes literally) showcase for the talents of the Royal Ballet who – from the evidence of Sylvia (review click here) and now this – are on top form this season.

As always E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original tale (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) is much darker and is open to reinterpretation; such as, in a Freudian way or as the stuff of nightmares. For instance, Rudolf Nureyev in 1968 brought a psychoanalytic dimension to his Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet. Drosselmeyer and the Prince were one and the same person, representing the ideal man dreamt up by the heroine, Clara, ready to leave childhood behind and become a teenager. My first Nutcracker at Covent Garden was when I saw him perform this dual role in 1977. In my old age(!) I am beginning to think this is one solution; or as Wayne Eagling shows us, the Nutcracker and Clara ‘become’ the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Peter Wright sets his Nutcracker in fairy-tale bygone times when children were allowed still to be children, and grown-ups weren’t afraid to bump into each other under the mistletoe at Christmas festivities in case they were wrongly accused of something! It is a guaranteed sell-out each year and can withstand repeated series of performances with umpteen cast changes, so, I suspect, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.

Petroc Trelawny was introducing the transmission alongside Darcey Bussell and his stiffly formal persona was a disappointing departure from the more relaxed presenting style of those who have previously joined the charming Ms. Bussell. Nevertheless, his reaction at the end of Act I about how the magical effects were ‘old-fashioned’ was spot-on. Indeed, children will see pantos in their local towns and cities this Christmas with much more real magic in them than this Nutcracker. Ballet needs to better embrace new technology soon – especially more video – whilst ensuring it remains at the service of the dance and does not swamp it.

Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs – which seem to be showing their age after 33 years – initially shows us the Stahlbaum’s party for family and friends, somewhere not far from the Black Forest in picturesque mid-nineteenth century Germany. There is lots of twee domestic cosiness; yet there is a more anarchic St Nicholas Eve parade that invades the house, complete with devils and the exotically dressed ‘foreigners’ – so typical of classical ballet of this era – who will reappear in the more fantastical Sugar Garden of Act II.

Drosselmeyer is placed at the centre of everything that transpires at the Christmas party; from entertaining the guests with his magic, to attempting to orchestrate the rescue of his nephew, Hans-Peter, from his fate as the Nutcracker. The Christmas tree grows to a dizzying height and he draws Clara – perhaps shrinking Alice-like – into her surreal, dream-like adventures. There she battles sinister toys and the evil mice, before helping the Nutcracker vanquish the Mouse King by beating him over the head with one of her slippers. Once Clara has proved her bravery and love for the Nutcracker, she can grow up. Drosselmeyer is the arch-manipulator par excellence – part Peter Capaldi’s Dr Who, part Jonathan Harris’s Zachary Smith in TV’s Lost in Space – and requires the Christmas Angel he has made to watch over Clara, as a greater force for good than he is. Snowflakes fall and soon Clara and the Nutcracker are transported to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets for all the set-piece choreographic bonbons we expect.

The best of the first-cast was undoubtedly Francesca Hayward’s Clara. She is petite – smaller than some of the Royal Ballet School students around her – and very lively as the young heroine. Her movement was natural and springy, and Hayward darted through the story with a totally believable sense of wonder, as if she was experiencing the stirrings of love, the falling of snow, as well as, Tchaikovsky’s gloriously symphonic score, for the first time. Alexander Campbell was a gallant Hans-Peter who clearly deserved rescuing. He displayed a suitable military bearing when battling the mice, a powerful leap, and gentle, caring, partnering. Gary Avis was an authoritative Drosselmeyer and performed his magic tricks with practiced aplomb, however, he can be too domineering and ever-present at times in this Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker has plenty of soloist roles, from all the entertainment at the party to those national dances. In a backstage film Christopher Carr (credited with the staging) is shown to be the epitome of the traditional hard ballet taskmaster, but he clearly gets results. Standards and energy levels were maintained throughout the evening. The corps de ballet were in particularly crisp form for the Waltz of the Snowflakes. They arched and swayed with their fingers fluttering to hint at the flakes falling, and at a certain point in the music, snow does descend onto the stage. All credit to Ross MacGibbon’s camera direction for holding back more during this Nutcracker to allow scenes like this to have maximum impact. As one tweet to #ROHNutcracker said ‘It’s now officially Christmas’. Indeed it definitely was at this point in the ballet, as we heard Tchaikovsky’s music – through the cinema speakers – sounding ravishing from the wonderful Royal Opera House Orchestra under the vastly experienced Barry Wordsworth.

All that remained was for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince to launch into their pas de deux. There was no doubting the technical perfection of Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, here dancing together for the first time in this ballet. Lamb had clear lines, a porcelain delicacy, and was ethereal and musical. She moved precisely from pose to pose like someone negotiating a floor covered with eggshells, yet leaving each one intact. McRae was as immaculate in the pyrotechnics of his solo as in his very careful partnering of Lamb. They were a very well-matched pair and were vivacious and perfectly in unison during the coda. There is a ‘but’ … and that is, for me, both dancers were too glacial rather than sweet.

Jim Pritchard

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