The Royal Ballet’s cosily familiar The Nutcracker returns to welcome in Christmas yet again

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, The Schola Cantorum of The London Oratory School, London Oratory Junior Choir (director: Charles Cole), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Andrew Litton (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Peter Jones) for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 12.12.2023 and seen at Everyman Chelmsford, Essex, 18.12.2023. (JPr)

Anna Rose O’Sullivan (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Marcelino Sambé (Prince) © Alice Pennefather

If it is Christmas, it must be Hansel and Gretel (review here), pantomime, or The Nutcracker. Sir Peter Wright’s production approaches its fortieth birthday, and it continues to sell-out all performances at the Royal Opera House and in cinemas too, to judge by the encore screening I saw in Chelmsford. Perhaps why is a topic for discussion at another time when the last ballet seen there, an equally enjoyable Don Quixote (review here), attracted an audience barely reaching double figures.

As I have written before English National Ballet’s Nutcracker (review here) gives us the fantasy and romance of Clara’s dream since – with her being on the cusp of puberty – her hormones are kicking in: even then Wayne Eagling’s version still lacks some dramatic coherence. Sir Peter Wright’s scenario here – while stressing the German roots of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story it is based on – has even less plot. Once more I shall refer to Wright’s own synopsis: ‘The wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll. The only way to break the spell was for the Nutcracker to defeat the Mouse King, thereby committing an act of great bravery, and for a young girl to love and care for him despite his awful appearance.’ And that is basically it, though Hoffmann’s original The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is much darker and open to reinterpretation; possibly as the stuff of nightmares or in a Freudian way, for example, Rudolf Nureyev brought a psychoanalytic dimension to his Nutcracker (review here).

Little is explained on stage, apart from the perfunctory prologue and some extended mime for the Nutcracker in Act II which will not mean much to those unfamiliar with the story or the ‘language’ of ballet. As I have remarked before, this Nutcracker provides a – sometimes literally – glittery and snowy showcase for the talents of The Royal Ballet who proved, once more, they have been on top form this season.

Peter Wright sets his Nutcracker in old Nuremberg and we are at the Stahlbaum’s lavish Christmas party in those bygone days when children were still allowed to be children. There is lots of twee domestic cosiness with a touch of anarchy as the St Nicholas Eve parade invades the house. Drosselmeyer is at the centre of everything which happens 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. (Unfortunately, with Andrew Litton, music director of New York City Ballet, rushing the excellent Covent Garden orchestra through an otherwise glorious account of Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous score, the camerawork was often slow to catch up with any of the ‘magic’ of the first act.)

The Christmas tree grows to a dizzying height, and Drosselmeyer draws Clara – by shrinking her Alice-like – into surreal, dreamlike adventures. There she battles sinister toys and evil mice, before vanquishing the Mouse King by beating him over the head with one of her slippers. By proving her bravery and love for the Nutcracker, Clara can grow up. I am more used to Gary Avis as the arch-manipulator Drosselmeyer who is certainly more avuncular than Thomas Whitehead who brings something more devilish to his character. He definitely needs a force for good to watch over Clara and that is the Christmas Angel he has made. Snowflakes fall and Clara and the Nutcracker are transported to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets (which we first encountered as the cake at the party) for all the set-piece choreographic treats we expect.

Sophie Allnat (Clara) and Thomas Whitehead (Drosselmeyer) © Alice Pennefather

Sophie Allnat was a very lively Clara with her movement totally natural as she dashed through the story with a totally believable sense of wonder, as if she was experiencing those stirrings of love, the falling snow, as well as, Tchaikovsky’s gloriously symphonic score, for the first time. Leo Dixon was rather more stoic as a dancer than Allnat but proved a suitably gallant Hans-Peter/Nutcracker. He displayed the military bearing required when battling the mice, a good jump, and sensitive partnering.

The Nutcracker has plenty of soloist roles and high standards and energy levels were maintained throughout the evening; notably in the second act diverts and especially Olivia Cowley and Lukas B. Brændsrød in the Gary Avis revised Arabian Dance. The corps de ballet were in particularly sparkling form for the Waltz of the Snowflakes restored now to the full complement of twenty-four after the sixteen of the Covid-affected years. 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 with some ethereal offstage singing from the London Oratory Junior Choir and The Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School.

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 the perfectly matched Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé; the delicate O’Sullivan danced with grace and evident musicality, whilst Sambé was immaculate in the difficult leaps and turns of his solo and in some very careful partnering of O’Sullivan. There are reviews on this site that will attest that I spotted Sambé’s talent long before he became a company principal. However – and I hope he wouldn’t mind me writing this – I have been a little disappointed of late and wonder if it is a matter of too much coaching and not enough spontaneity now in his dancing.

So, this Nutcracker will be forty when I suspect it will be on again next Christmas and of course as such a box office winner I suspect The Royal Ballet’s attitude is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ but time must come eventually for a new production …surely?

Jim Pritchard

Music – Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov
Scenario – Marius Petipa after E.T.A. Hoffmann
Production and Scenario – Peter Wright
Designer – Julia Trevelyan Oman
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Production Consultant – Roland John Wiley
Arabian Dance adapted by Gary Avis

The Sugar Plum Fairy – Anna Rose O’Sullivan
The Prince – Marcelino Sambé
Herr Drosselmeyer – Thomas Whitehead
Clara – Sophie Allnatt
Hans-Peter / The Nutcracker – Leo Dixon
Rose Fairy – Isabella Gasparini
Rose Fairy Escorts – David Donnelly, Téo Dubreuil, Harrison Lee, Joseph Sissens
Leading Flowers – Leticia Dias, Isabel Lubach, Julia Roscoe, Mariko Sasaki

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