The Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker still is a glittering showcase for a company at their very best in 2022

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, London Oratory Junior Choir, The Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School (director: Charles Cole), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Barry Wordsworth (conductor). Broadcast (directed by Peter Jones) from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 8.12.2022. (JPr)

William Bracewell (Prince) and Fumi Kaneko (Sugar Plum Fairy) © Alistair Muir

Choreography – Peter Wright (after Lev Ivanov)
Production and Scenario – Peter Wright
Original Scenario – Marius Petipa (after E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker Und Mausekönig)
Designer – Julia Trevelyan Oman
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Production Consultant – Roland John Wiley
Arabian Dance – Adapted by Gary Avis

Cast included:
The Sugar Plum Fairy – Fumi Kaneko
The Prince – William Bracewell
Herr Drosselmeyer – Bennet Gartside
Clara – Sae Maeda
Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker –Joseph Sissens

Two things in particular say ‘It’s Christmassss!’ more than anything else and that is pantomime and The Nutcracker. I first saw Sir Peter Wright’s legendary production nine days after it premiered in 1984 with the incomparable Lesley Collier as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Anthony Dowell as her Prince. Returning over the years doesn’t make any greater sense of the first act, and the second one is little more than an extended display of bravura ballet steps. I suppose in the current straitened funding circumstances at the Royal Opera House a new Nutcracker with storytelling worthy of 2022 is out of the question. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, especially when it will fill the theatre – with innumerable changes of cast – for such a long run of performances over the festive period each year (after this one there were 27 still to come).

However, if you are new to The Nutcracker and know little about the fairy story there is nothing much to help you as the ballet begins. More so this time because of some rare transmission difficulties at the Cineworld Basildon – recently named ‘cinema of the year’ – which occasionally froze the dancers and left them hanging momentarily in the air. Peter Wright’s own synopsis may help a little and you can read how ‘the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll.’ The ‘timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks’ had eliminated half of the mouse population in a royal palace and that was her revenge. To break the spell the Nutcracker must commit an act of great bravery by defeating the Mouse King and – despite his appearance – be redeemed by the love of a young girl.’ There is also a very odd solo for Hans-Peter in Act II which I am surprised has survived. It involves some extended mime as he tells the backstory of his enchantment as the Nutcracker. This is fine for me as I understand the gestures but could be meaningless for many watching whether in the theatre or cinema. All that being said, the Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker remains the glittering (sometimes literally!) showcase for the talents of company who appeared to be on their very best form.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is quite a dark affair (as most of the original fairy tales are) and therefore open to reinterpretation, particularly in a Freudian way, or as the stuff of nightmares. In 1968 Rudolf Nureyev brought a psychoanalytic dimension to his Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet and for him Drosselmeyer and the Prince were one and the same person. They represented the ideal man of Clara’s dreams as she is ready to leave childhood behind, become a teenager and enter puberty. My first Nutcracker at Covent Garden was in 1977 when I saw Nureyev dance this dual leading role. I still believe his is the best solution for the story but, of course, in 2022 there might be connotations here that are inappropriate for the typically young audience this ballet attracts.

Sir Peter Wright is now 96 and The Royal Ballet’s Director Kevin O’Hare revealed how he had recently been there ‘for the opening and he was thrilled … and so happy and took a curtain call.’ Wright sets his Nutcracker in bygone times when children were allowed still to be children. Because of Covid restrictions this is the first time in three years that the Royal Ballet is dancing The Nutcracker with a full complement of its young students who show their obvious delight at being onstage in the first scene – with the usual well-characterised, spoiled brat Fritz (this time from Logan James) – and notably as mice and soldiers during the Battle Scene.

The late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs take us first to the Stahlbaum’s Christmas party for family and friends, somewhere in picturesque mid-nineteenth century Germany. There is lots of twee domestic cosiness, though there is an anarchic St Nicholas Eve parade that invades the house and the cape-twirling Drosselmeyer is at the centre of everything that happens at the 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 Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker © Tristram Kenton

Drosselmeyer uses a Christmas Angel he has made for the top of the Christmas tree to watch over Clara, as a greater force for good than he is. The tree grows to a dizzying height and is still a captivating stage effect having been recently refurbished – we were told – with the more sustainable flickering LED candles! Drosselmeyer draws the young Clara – perhaps shrinking Alice-like – into some surreal, dream-like adventures. He has put the Nutcracker doll in her care, and she puts it to bed in a toy house which we see will see come onstage larger-than-life as Clara helps toy soldiers and the Nutcracker battle the evil mice. She vanquishes the Mouse King by beating him over the head with one of her slippers and by proving her bravery and love for the Nutcracker in saving his life, Clara can grow up. Snowflakes fall and Clara and the Nutcracker are transported to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets.

With the spell broken Hans-Peter tells his interminable story to the Sugar Plum Fairy before the series of delectable – and possibly contentious – divertissements. Ballet gets off rather lightly in this but the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances can all be accused of, at best, exoticism or, at worst, cultural appropriation. This is revisionism of course for a ballet that has been basically unchanged for 130 years. The Arabian Dance has been adapted by Gary Avis and there is some sultry slinkiness from Melissa Hamilton in her duet with Lukas B Brændsrød, The Chinese Dance has also been simplified from what it once was back in the day and is now just an acrobatic affair for the Joonhyuk Jun and Taisuke Nakao.

For me there is a distinct lack of drama, but this Nutcracker clearly pays due reverence to a masterpiece first stage in St Petersburg in 1892. The dancing seemed flawless and notably – where it mattered most – in the grand pas de deux where Fumi Kaneko and William Bracewell displayed understated technical and musical authority; she eased through her tricky variation with a crystalline purity (matching the celesta accompaniment), and he was the epitome of a danseur noble as her fine cavalier. Sae Maeda had a near perfect blend of childlike wonder and grown-up virtuosity as Clara while Giacomo Rovero was her spirited dance partner at the party and Joseph Sissons was suitably wooden as the Nutcracker whilst his Hans-Peter had youthful charm and athletic fluency. Bennet Gartside as Drosselmeyer was like a whirling dervish as he went through his bag of tricks and for once hinted at something darker beneath the bonhomie. There was transcendent, pure dancing when we reached the Kingdom of Sweets and the corps de ballet who scintillated as snowflakes were suitably fragrant during the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ when Mayara Magri was elegant, expressive and precise as the Rose Fairy.

Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous score resounded through the cinema loudspeakers. The veteran conductor Barry Wordsworth (Principal Guest Conductor of The Royal Ballet) sounded as if he guided the Royal Opera House orchestra through a rather rampant Act I (perhaps not a bad thing?) whilst bringing requisite sparkle to the more showy-offy Act II. Kudos to the offstage voices of the London Oratory Junior Choir and The Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School who gave the ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ such a serene atmosphere with their beautiful singing.

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment