O’Sullivan, Sambé, Nuñez and Muntagirov Transcend the Routine in The Royal Ballet’s Familiar The Nutcracker

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (choreography by Peter Wright): Soloists, corps de ballet, London Oratory Junior Choir, Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Barry Wordsworth (conductor). Recorded at the Royal Opera House on 3 December and screened at Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 10.12.2018. (JPr)

Clara (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) and Hans-Peter (Marcelino Sambé)
in The Nutcracker Act I (c) Alistair Muir


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 – Anna Rose O’Sullivan
Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker – Marcelino Sambé
The Sugar Plum Fairy – Marianela Nuñez
The Prince – Vadim Muntagirov
Spanish dance – Kristen McNally, Nicol Edmonds, Annette Buvoli, Erico Montes, Hannah Grennell, Tomas Mock
Arabian dance – Melissa Hamilton, Reece Clarke, Téo Dubreuil, David Donnelly
Chinese dance – Luca Acri, Leo Dixon
Russian Dance – Paul Kay, Kevin Emerton
Dance of the Mirlitons – Isabella Gasparini, Elizabeth Harrod, Ashley Dean, Emma Maguire
Rose Fairy – Fumi Kaneko
Rose Fairy Escorts – William Bracewell, Tristan Dyer, Benjamin Ella, Valentino Zucchetti
Leading flowers – Claire Calvert. Itziar Mendizabal, Romany Pajdak, Beatriz Stix-Brunell

I mean no disrespect to genuine sufferers but is it possible to develop late in life an allergy to The Nutcracker? I understand that for many in the sold-out cinema auditorium in Chelmsford The Nutcracker is Christmas just like Santa Claus, tinsel and turkey. Nothing would have drawn me to Sir Peter Wright’s 1984 staging again if it had not been starring The Royal Ballet’s dream pairing for this ballet of Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. In some ballet reviews recently I have approvingly mentioned Marcelino Sambé and Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker was the biggest role I have seen him perform and he did not disappoint. Another wonderful discovery was another alumna of The Royal Ballet School, Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Clara.

I watched this encore showing of a recent performance (3 December) and it was clearer than ever to me how little story-telling there is in this version of The Nutcracker. Maybe the synopsis does say how ‘the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll.’ That ‘timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks’ had ‘killed off half of the mouse population’ in a royal palace so this was her revenge. To break the spell the Nutcracker must commit an act of great bravery and slay the Mouse King and find a young girl to love him. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original tale (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) was much a darker tale and what remains of it seems to be less and less important with each passing year.

All we are left with is – as I have written before – a glittering (sometimes literally) showcase for the talents of The Royal Ballet. Luckily they were – as an entire ensemble – as good as I have seen them recently in what has become merely a sequence of ballet set pieces, regardless of how delightful it all is. The Nutcracker is a guaranteed sell-out each year in the theatre or cinema and survives repeated seasons of performances with umpteen cast changes, so perhaps the attitude is ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. However, this is 2018 and over this production’s 34 years technology has moved on and there is so much more that could be done to bring new life to The Nutcracker, digitally projected scenery being one example. Ross MacGibbon’s camerawork for the screen was admirable in the way it held back and gave us a complete view of the stage on many significant occasions, but it was clear in closeup how Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs are really beginning to show their age.

We begin at the Stahlbaum’s party for family and friends in picturesque mid-nineteenth century Germany. We see the Christmas Angel and then the St Nicholas Eve parade brings in some exotically dressed ‘foreigners’ – so typical of classical ballet of this period – and they will return later in the ballet. Drosselmeyer orchestrates everything that subsequently transpires at the Christmas party in his attempt to rescue Hans-Peter, from his fate. The Christmas tree grows to an impressive height and he draws Clara – perhaps shrinking Alice-like – into surreal, dream-like adventures. She battles sinister toys and the evil mice, before helping the Nutcracker defeat the Mouse King by whacking him over the head with one of her slippers. So with Clara having proved her bravery and her love for the Nutcracker she can grow up. Snowflakes fall, and Clara and the Nutcracker are soon transported to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets for all the glorious choreographic confections we expect.

Last year (review click here) the best of the cast was Francesca Hayward’s Clara and she is now away filming Cats. This year I cannot single anyone particularly from the remarkable quartet of dancers who were the two leading couples: Anna Rose O’Sullivan (Clara) and Marcelino Sambé (Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker); Marianela Nuñez (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Vadim Muntagirov (Prince).

The Nutcracker provides many more opportunities for others of course from all the goings on at the Act I party to the national dances in the second act. Energy and commitment were exemplary throughout and the corps de ballet were in sparkling form for the Waltz of the Snowflakes with the singing of the London Oratory Junior Choir and The Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School setting the appropriate mood as snow descends onto the stage. Here as elsewhere the musical accompaniment – as heard through the cinema speakers – from Barry Wordsworth and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House never did full justice to Tchaikovsky’s score that has sounded more ravishing and less plodding under Wordsworth himself and of course many other conductors. This was the first performance of a long run and may have lacked some rehearsal. Melissa Hamilton was particularly mesmerising in the Arabian dance and overall the national dances did not outstay their welcome as they sometimes can, though the Chinese dance is orientalist hokum that looks very dated in 2018. Fumi Kaneko was an enchanting Rose Fairy and Gary Avis repeated his authoritative Drosselmeyer. He performed his magic tricks with his usual practiced aplomb, however, Avis is given little to work with and Drosselmeyer remains a rather one-dimensional master of ceremonies.

Anna Rose O’Sullivan is very slight and captivatingly fleet-footed and totally believable in the young heroine’s sense of wonderment at everything magical she was involved in, as well as, her pubescent stirrings of love for Marcelino Sambé’s Hans-Peter. The young Portuguese dancer is a tremendous prospect though he – like a few of The Royal Ballet’s current leading male dancers – is not that tall and this might limit how his career progresses. The magnetic Sambé is a wonderfully natural, clean and spirited dancer with a prodigious leap. The Act II mime about his character’s rescue can often seem superfluous to the story but Sambé brought this vignette to vivid life.

Waiting finally over it was time for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince to launch into their pas de deux. In fact that wait had been extended by technical issues that has delayed the beginning of the screening for 30 minutes. Now it was all but forgotten and watching Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov was almost a transcendental experience. Muntagirov was smiley, elegant, and effortlessly virtuosic in all he did and partnered Nuñez impeccably. She was musically assured and technically perfect with joy exuding from every step. Nuñez brought an exquisite filigree quality to her variation that matched flawlessly the celesta we heard in the orchestra

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is on at the Royal Opera House and for news about the rest of the 2018/19 Live Cinema Season click here.

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