Review: Royal Ballet - The Nutcracker - Royal Opera House

Performance: 8 December 2015 - 14 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 9 December 2015

The Nutcracker. Steven McRae as The Prince. Iana Salenko as the Sugar Plum Fairy. ©ROH 2015. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Performance reviewed: 8 December

The Nutcracker is the world’s most ubiquitous ballet and last night’s idle chat amongst the critics encompassed much reminiscing and guesswork about the number of different productions they may have seen. Some veterans of our profession were estimating in three figures, a claim that seems less exaggerated when one considers that English National Ballet have had more than ten versions and there are at least six interpretations to be seen somewhere in the UK, this December. My score is comparatively meagre: probably more than 20, but less than 30. Not a lot, really, when you could probably fit that many separate productions into one winter road trip around the United States. It makes me wonder what I’ve been doing all my life!

Guessing how many ‘Nuts’ I’ve seen is a challenge. Identifying my enduring favourite is easy. Peter Wright’s timeless, enchanting production, here enjoying its 400th performance at the Royal Opera House, retains my vote for the ultimate achievement in bringing Tchaikovsky’s captivating, melodious score to life in ballet. It has been with us since 1984 and I like to think that it is to the Royal Ballet like the ravens to the Tower of London or the Barbary Apes to Gibraltar. All will be well, so long as it remains in the repertoire.

A huge contribution to its enduring success comes in the late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s quintessential and evergreen designs, combining a dreamy, festive colour palette of red, ochre, green and gold with a set that responds in size and scale to the wizardry of Herr Drosselmeyer’s magic.

The final 20 minutes or so of Act One has to be one of my favourite ballet sequences, representing the gigantic growth of the Christmas tree; the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers; the scintillating ‘little’ pas de deux for Clara and Hans-Peter, freed from his imprisonment in the Nutcracker doll; and their magical journey to the Land of Snow. Tchaikovsky provided all the meaning and sentiment but it is this production – with these designs – that delivers a magical, visual spectacle to match the power and subtlety of his music.

Another reason for this production’s enduring freshness is the vital mix of experience with the zest of new interpretations, both through emerging company artists but always in the annual turnover of children from the Royal Ballet Schools, bringing new battalions of energy and vitality to the events of Act One. Last night, I was delighted to meet the mum, dad and elder sister of a Lower School pupil, performing as a mouse, and to feel their infectious enthusiasm for her achievement, undeterred by the prospect of having to pick her up from the stage door at the interval of performances between now and the New year!

Wright places the magician, Drosselmeyer, as the central cog to all the action and Gary Avis brings gravitas with a flourish to this vital character who is largely ever-present from the opening prologue to the closing scene: a master of ceremony, an accomplished magician, an inventor but – above all – an uncle desperate to free his nephew from the Mouse King’s spell.

The depth of experience that Avis invests in this central role is replicated throughout the backbone of the cast with Christopher Saunders and Elizabeth McGorian as the sociable Stahlbaums – party hosts and Clara’s parents; Alastair Marriott entertaining us with the decrepit Grandfather’s dance; Genesia Rosato, a beguiling dancing mistress; Johannes Stepanek as a handsome army captain; later returning to lead the Spanish Dance alongside Christina Arestis.

These stalwarts of the Royal Ballet are joined, as always, by emerging stars. As Clara and Hans-Peter, Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell brought back wonderful memories of Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Putrov in the same ingénue roles, some fifteen years’ ago. They were that good! As, too, was the delightful Rose Fairy of Yasmine Naghdi, offering gorgeous épaulement and supple plasticity.

Others to commend included the Rose Fairy’s four escorts (James Hay, Fernando Montaño, Marcelino Sambé and Valentino Zucchetti) who had lots of fun, perhaps even improvising some accents along the way. Sambé also jumped for gold as Drosselmeyer’s Assistant; Montaño was Harlequin to Elizabeth Harrod’s delightful Columbine; and Hay brought good mechanical effect to the soldier brought to life by Drosselmeyer.

I took the gorgeous Arabian dance to be a metaphor for the whole performance. A ballet master looking on would have noted corrections in the spacing and timing of the movement between the three men but it had no impact whatsoever on the enjoyment of this extraordinary capsule pas de quatre. Olivia Cowley was a captivating seductress of the harem; and her three slaves were yet another blend of experienced and emerging soloists with Eric Underwood and Tom Whitehead providing security in their combined partnering strength with Nicol Edmonds appearing as if the apprentice eunuch, ready to step into their slippers at any time!

If the physical manifestation of magic came from Gary in a cloud of glitter, then the apotheosis of dance magic was delivered in the form of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince, a pairing made in dance heaven through the forms of Iana Salenko and Steven McRae. If it were possible through some alchemy to make priceless porcelain with the properties of plasticine then their pas de deux would be the outcome. Rigorously, yet beautifully, in harmony with one another in their duet and wholly integrated with the musical structure in each variation; this was as flawless a grand pas de deux as may be possible.

The addition of Salenko as a guest principal, with her magical combination of delicacy and strength, gorgeous line and épaulement, is one of the best things to have happened at the Royal Ballet in recent times; and her partnership with McRae is never less than exciting.

It is pleasing to assert that this is still the very best of the best of ballets. It would require a very hard heart to leave such a performance without a warm inner glow.

Continues until 14 January

Photos: ©ROH 2015. Tristram Kenton

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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