It would need a very hard heart not to be warmed by Sir Peter Wright’s sparkling production of The Nutcracker (for The Royal Ballet) and it was especially heartening to see this nonagenarian in the audience to celebrate another year’s opening of one of his most enduring achievements.  

Sarah Lamb (The Sugar Plum Fairy) in <i>The Nutcracker</i> © Karolina Kuras | ROH, 2017
Sarah Lamb (The Sugar Plum Fairy) in The Nutcracker
© Karolina Kuras | ROH, 2017

Created in 1984, this ballet is now deeply rooted in the company’s DNA and provides the annual treat of seeing familiar faces as characters they have come to own, as well as the rite of passage for new dancers emerging into these well-worn roles with a refreshing new touch.

Amongst the much-loved veterans, it was, as always, a special delight to see Gary Avis reprise, with his usual sparkling brio, the heartbroken and mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer. He opens and closes proceedings: at first mourning the loss of his nephew, Hans-Peter – imprisoned inside a Nutcracker doll by the nasty Mouse monarchs; and – at the end – in joyful reunion with said nephew, now enchanted back to human form.  

Avis’ Drosselmeyer bestrides the Stahlbaum’s Christmas House Party like a colossus, appearing in a cloud of glitter and swishing his huge velvet-lined cape to further exaggerate this behemoth imagery; dispensing a torrent of magic tricks in such quick succession that the audience had no time to reflect when one went awry! The power of his benevolent sorcery causes the sweeping, panoramic rise of the Christmas tree – in perfect harmony with the enveloping music of Tchaikovsky’s glorious score: a magical scene that has become my defining moment for the arrival of the festive season!   

Avis has delivered so many memorable roles, but the speed and panache of his towering performances as Drosselmeyer will surely be the character with which he will be most fondly associated. Incidentally, Avis made this performance extra special by dedicating to the memory of former Royal Ballet principal dancer Annette Page (the wife of choreographer, Ronald Hynd) who had died on the previous day.

Nicol Edmonds (Mouse King) in <i>The Nutcracker</i> © Karolina Kuras | ROH, 2017
Nicol Edmonds (Mouse King) in The Nutcracker
© Karolina Kuras | ROH, 2017

As Dr and Mrs Stahlbaum, Christopher Saunders and Elizabeth McGorian are the epitome of the perfect hosts and, as ever, Alastair Marriott provides a well-observed comic cameo as the grumpy Grandfather taking his traditional turn on the dance floor. Other favourite faces reappeared in the briefest of roles, each as vital to the overall effect as a single piece in a jigsaw puzzle: Kristen McNally, distinctive as the Dancing Mistress; Bennet Gartside, a noble and dignified Captain; Tristan Dyer as the brief romantic interest for Clara; and the pitch-perfect contributions of Kevin Emerton, Meaghan Grace Hinkis, Elizabeth Harrod and Paul Kay as mechanical dolls magically brought to life by Drosselmeyer.

Much though I love the Christmas Party (how I dream of being a guest!) and its dream aftermath – progressively honed and improved by Wright’s tinkering, over the years – I can’t wait for the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers to be over because it brings us to the beautiful petit pas de deux between Clara and Hans-Peter (now released from the Nutcracker). It is sublime, romantic music and Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell performed a duet to suit. She is adorable as the young, demure, yet inquisitive, heroine, Clara. Crying when, in a pique of jealousy, her brother (Caspar Lench) destroys the Nutcracker doll (quickly fixed by Drosselmeyer) but with the courage to whack the Mouse King (Nicol Edmonds) over the head with her slipper while he is attacking the human form of her beloved Nutcracker. The precision of Campbell’s debonair dancing – ramrod pointed arms and feet, plasticity of spine and neatly-beaten feet - is exemplar for this role. 

The final scene of Act one, with its falling snow, fir trees, Mirlitons, a corps of dancing Snowflakes and the golden carriage is magical, and even if the latter vehicle is effectively a decorated milk float, the legacy of the late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s sumptuous staging never lets anything spoil the allusion!

Sarah Lamb (The Sugar Plum Fairy) and Steven McRae (The Prince) © Karolina Kuras | ROH, 2017
Sarah Lamb (The Sugar Plum Fairy) and Steven McRae (The Prince)
© Karolina Kuras | ROH, 2017

There was much wonderful dancing to admire in the Kingdom of the Sweets, not least in the slow, mesmerising exoticism of the Arabian dance with sinuous Melissa Hamilton securely and fluidly passed around Reece Clarke, David Donnelly and Téo Dubreil; and the strong Russian dance by Leo Dixon, Calvin Richardson and Campbell. Yasmine Naghdi was a delightful Rose Fairy, preceding a most exquisite grand pas de deux for Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, as the Sugar Plumb Fairy and her Prince. I could have watched this much-loved dance in this sweet setting, to the most beautiful music (congratulations to Barry Wordsworth and the orchestra), as performed by these elite, elegant and electrifying dancers over-and-over again.

There are so many productions of The Nutcracker, performed all over the world at this time of year, but I haven’t yet found another to match the enchanting vision conjured by Sir Peter and his creative partners, more than thirty years’ ago.