My season of goodwill invariably begins with the first perky chords in Tchaikovsky’s deliciously enticing miniature overture. It never fails to stimulate those achingly fleeting bristles at the back of my neck and that all-too-brief legacy of warmth spreading down the spine.
Whilst I have seen countless productions of The Nutcracker, with still more to be added, this season, it is this glorious and venerable interpretation by Sir Peter Wright that remains always the one to which all others must bear comparison. This opening night of a new run, which will contain many debuts and, alas, perhaps a farewell or two, also served as a celebration of Sir Peter’s 90th birthday (occurring two days’ later) with a flower throw and an onstage, post-curtain call presentation.
The Royal Opera House gave Sir Peter a splendidly ornate cake and a medallion; The Royal Ballet presented him with a truly memorable performance of one of his best-loved and longest-lived ballets. Created in 1984 and enjoying the sumptuous, timeless designs of Julia Trevelyan Oman, the inherent sparkle and glamour of it all remains as warming as a mug of fine mulled wine, sipped by candlelight in front of a roaring log fire.
Wright’s production is regularly refreshed. He has returned to it many times to snip and edit such that an informal annual game of “spot-the-difference” is always great fun. This year, I could see further subtle changes to the Mouse King’s battlefield, which has become much-altered since the original. And a revised Chinese Dance excises the larger part of its former capacity to offend. Gone are the silly Fu Manchu moustaches, the pointy hats and pointed fingers, the little parasols and absurd 19th-century racial stereotyping; and gone, too, are two of the Chinese men. The rotational, levered cartwheels are retained and were neatly performed by Marcelino Sambé and Luca Acri, wearing rather more subdued brocade costumes than hitherto.
Although Tchaikovsky allegedly detested the music he composed to the precise detail of Marius Petipa’s order, it is his highly descriptive score that has made The Nutcracker easily the world’s most popular ballet (certainly in terms of the quantum of performances). Here, the orchestra was taken along at quite a gallop by Boris Gruzin; the tempo too quick for me, in many places, but what wonderful melodies, at any speed!
One perennial boon is to see new generations of performers slip into roles seamlessly alongside veteran players of characters, honed to rounded perfection over many years. Gary Avis, Alastair Marriott, Christopher Saunders and Elizabeth McGorian have been performing in Wright’s production since the early 90s but their national dances of those days have been traded in for the key character roles. McGorian is elegance exemplified as Mrs Stahlbaum, the best Christmas party hostess, ever; ably supported by Saunders as her attentive husband. Marriott’s aged grandfather is – as ever – a comic delight.
The show, however, belongs largely to Avis. Wright’s production majors on the mysterious magician, Drosselmeyer, as the key to the transition from the world of flesh and blood to the fantasy land of snow and sweets. It used to be a role that Sir Anthony Dowell devoured with all the stage mastery that great dancer possessed (a performance one can still catch on DVD) but it is now wholly owned by Avis who delivers the dual role of magician and master of ceremonies with just the right mix of charisma, authority and subtlety. It is a tour de force by a performer who sublimates self to character in the best chameleon-like tradition of great acting.
Lauren Cuthbertson was an idyllic Sugar Plum Fairy; gorgeous lines, beautiful poses and admirable footwork (to the unmistakeable sounds of the celesta) in her variation. The yearning, soulful Adagio – to that wonderfully melodic descending scale – was superbly danced with assured and deliberately understated support from her prince, Federico Bonelli.
Francesca Hayward was a delight as the demure, yet adventurous, Clara. Her performance was good enough to put me in mind of Alina Cojocaru in the same role (when newly arrived from Kiev, at the turn of the millennium) and that is high praise indeed. As Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker, Alexander Campbell was a paragon of debonair precision, his sharply pointed hands and feet scything the air, like arrows.
And a final word for young Caspar Lench who shone brightly as Clara’s mischievous brother, Fritz (a role played way back, in 1985, by Christopher Wheeldon; and a few years later by another great choreographer of today, Christopher Hampson). Let’s hope Caspar enjoys a similarly fruitful future. And, if there is only one Nutcracker with which to herald the Christmas season, let it always be this one.
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