Review: Royal Ballet -The Nutcracker - Royal Opera House

Performance: in rep until 16 January 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 6 December 2013

Royal Ballet 'The Nutcracker' - Francesca Hayward as Clara. Photo Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 4 December

The first warm glow of Christmas once again comes courtesy of Peter Wright’s gorgeous production of The Nutcracker, a seasonal classic at the Royal Ballet since 1984 (now shown in the revision made for the reopening of the renovated Royal Opera House in 1999). Countless versions of Tchaikovsky’s tuneful music have been performed around the world over the last century but – for me – it is usually this production that captures the magic above all others.

Lasting success has been achieved through Wright’s masterful ability to establish a tightly-knit theatrical structure and clear story-telling (and in ballet this means legible mime), which allows the beauty of the many set pieces of dance to glow unhindered by the trappings of narrative. His production is gloriously enhanced by the late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s sumptuous designs: opulent green and lush crimson for the Stahlbaum’s Christmas party; the marvel of their Christmas tree growing to an enormous height; winter wonderlands in the street scenes and the enchanted forest in the Kingdom of the Snow; and a magical world of golden, syrupy brightness in the Sugar Garden of the Palace in the Kingdom of the Sweets. It appears as if you really could eat it.

Watching the divertissements shown as entertainment in sweety-land, I wondered about how these sit nowadays in terms of the caricaturing of national identities vis-à-vis political correctness. I guess the two burly, bearded Russians and the flamboyancy of the Spanish group are inoffensive enough but I wonder how much longer it will be permissible to show the white-faced, clownish “chinamen” bouncing around like puppets. But, I suppose as long as it remains OK for the Beijing Opera then it must still be alright for the Royal Opera House!

Another reason for the success of this production is the coherence brought to it by the central figure of Drosselmeyer. His plot to use the love of the Stahlbaum’s young daughter, his god-daughter Clara, to save his nephew Hans-Peter from imprisonment in the Nutcracker doll is what gives the tale its momentum and takes Clara and Hans-Peter on their magical mystery tour to the Kingdoms of Snow and Sweets. Gary Avis has made this role his own in recent years, a commanding presence with his swishing cloak, enveloping clouds of glitter and sundry other magical tricks; Avis injects clarity and purpose into every carefully-nuanced action and I can think of very few other essentially non-dancing roles that are so dominant than the part of Drosselmeyer (in Peter Wright’s production) when given such conviction by this consummate character artist.

Francesca Hayward (a late substitution for Emma Maguire who is injured) and Alexander Campbell were delightful as Clara and Hans-Peter. Campbell – who in this make-up, hairstyle and costume closely resembles the character of Kurt Hummel in Glee – was impressively believable as the toy soldier turning back into a young man and his long mime at the beginning of the Sugar garden scene was always crystal clear. Hayward embodied the right mix of sweetness and determination and the pair danced beautifully to that most delicious of Tchaikovsky melodies in what is often referred to as the “little pas de deux” at the end of the battle scene (which, by the way, is always done so well down to the finest detail in this production). Other performances to savour were Melissa Hamilton’s sinuous, flexible Arabian dance (ably supported by Thomas Whitehead, Ryoichi Hirano and Nicol Edmonds) and Yuhui Choe’s delightful Rose Fairy.

As the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince consort, Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli, presented an appropriate contrast to their young visitors. Mature and regal with assured dancing – a momentary spill by Morera was so expertly retrieved that anyone who blinked would have missed it – they radiated a warm and expressive air of infallibility and goodness. Morera is one of the unsung heroines of the Royal Ballet, a ballerina who is never showy but always correct. The Sugar Plum Fairy is such a perfect vessel for her assuredness of line and port de bras; and Bonelli remains the most princely of the Royal Ballet’s male principals, dancing with an aristocratic élan as if he owns all the sweets in the kingdom and he want us to know it, only politely.

In rep at the Royal Opera House until 16 January – returns only

Photos: Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

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