Review: St Petersburg Ballet Theatre in The Nutcracker at Royal Albert Hall & touring

Performance: 27 Nov 06
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 29 November 2006

Sighting the first_Nutcracker_ is to Christmas as hearing the first cuckoo is to spring and this one-night-only gig at the Royal Albert Hall is a sure sign that the festive season has arrived. There are many more to come but none will be quite like this 1934 Soviet version.

There is much unfamiliar territory for a London audience: three Acts instead of two (a case of 2 into 3 doesn’t go); merging the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy; and the famous grand pas de deux is a pas de six which bizarrely resembles the Rose Adagio from ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ as four Cavaliers muscle in on the Nutcracker Prince to partner his new love. Soviet influence on the narrative is especially clear in the cruel unmasking of the illusion in the final epilogue: fairy tales did not come true in the age of Stalin.

The SPBT possesses a star ballerina in Irina Kolesnikova. She is, without doubt, the complete article: exquisite port de bras, great feet and efficient footwork, an elastic back and long, elegant neck and, above all, a radiant stage presence which shone even when seen from the far side of the cavernous Albert Hall.

Despite all of these gifts, I felt sorry for Kolesnikova and her colleagues since what should have been an enjoyable performance was more than unduly affected by the inadequacy of the venue, the poor quality of the scaled down orchestration and an unsatisfactory set which all too frequently ruined any illusion it set out to create.

This is a tired venue in need of overhaul, seemingly incapable of servicing a full house (as this was). By the time you have queued for 20 minutes to collect a ticket, another 15 to deposit a coat and 10 more to visit washrooms that would be a disgrace to a minor league football club on matchday, the romance has all but gone. The set design was scuppered every time a dancer collided with the fabric trees, leaving them shimmering like an old curtain caught in a draught. Worst of all, with no pit, the orchestra was placed directly in front of the very low stage so that those in the stalls – with no rake – had to view the ballet through the musicians.

There are many Russian companies frequently touring the UK and the SPBT is certainly the foremost amongst these, mainly (but not merely) because they have a ballerina of world-class ability and genuine star quality. Less than 24 hours after decamping from London they were on stage again in Nottingham, in a tour that lasts through to February. At their best they are very good, as in the excellent choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers, the pleasing patterns of which were flawlessly executed.

This was not a venue to see them at their best. From my vantage point it was like watching the figures in a toy snowdome through the wrong end of a telescope. A fact irritatingly exaggerated by the undue length of the scene transitions and time-filling lighting effect of falling snow – rather like a chocolate fountain dispensing streams of tiny, white polystyrene balls. This was a case of three stars for the performers but none for the staging.

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