Normally, a row of spectators wriggling with anticipation ahead of a Nutcracker matinee would be a party of schoolchildren. But 2020 has been far from a normal year and the excited occupants in their – socially-distanced – Row E seats were all critics, thrilled to be back in the Royal Opera House for the first performance after the second lockdown was lifted. Christmas just isn’t Christmas without The Nutcracker and The Royal Ballet has worked miracles to deliver this magical show to the stage, tweaked to be Covid-secure, for a projected run of 17 performances.

Vadim Muntagirov (Prince) and Marianela Núñez (Sugar Plum Fairy)
© ROH | Alastair Muir (2018)

Those tweaks to Sir Peter Wright’s choreography were deft, many of them barely noticeable. There was no contact between couples in the Grandfather Dance – and definitely no little girl leaping into his lap at the end – and the corps never touched in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, their flurried paths interwoven but not interlocked. We were denied Coffee and Chocolate (the Arabian and Spanish Dances) from the delicious selection box that is the Act 2 divertissement, while Leo Dixon and Calvin Richardson performed the Chinese Dance without Anna Rose O’Sullivan’s Clara, enabling dancers to stay within their performance “bubbles”.

The Battle Scene, restaged by Will Tuckett
© ROH | Emma Kauldhar

The biggest alteration was to the Act 1 battle scene, an intricate skirmish that usually involves 48 children. Will Tuckett restaged the scene for just a dozen adult company members – six soldiers, six mice – as well as Clara, the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. So adroit was Tuckett’s choreography that the eye was always drawn to the significant action and one barely missed things like the drumming rabbit or the stretcher-bearing mice. Children were largely absent from the party scene, just five of them, including Clara’s brother Fritz, whose naughty boy antics earn him a “freezing” spell from Drosselmeyer rather than the usual flywire levitation. There was no off-stage children’s choir for the Snowflakes, replaced by synthesised voices. There were precious few children in the audience of 850 either, although a few bunked off school. That’s only fair, given that some of us had bunked off work.

James Hay (Hans-Peter) and Anna Rose O'Sullivan (Clara)
© ROH | Helen Maybanks (2016)

We were treated to a performance that zinged with the energy of a company thrilled to be back on stage. Anna Rose O’Sullivan was a glowing Clara, whose adolescence is shed very quickly in her pas de deux with the Nutcracker once he returns to the human form of Hans-Peter, Drosselmeyer’s nephew. She dances with real radiance now and is due to make her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy later in this run. James Hay was a dashing Hans-Peter, a sensitive partner in the Pine Forest pas de deux and springy in the Cossack steps of the Trepak. Marianela Núñez, beaming from ear to ear, was a lustrous Sugar Plum Fairy, pristine in her variation, the celesta very “present” in the sound picture, raised to Stalls Circle level above the pit along with the harp. Vadim Muntagirov was her noble Prince, the Intrada of their Grand Pas majestically danced. Claire Calvert was an excellent Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers. Koen Kessels conducted a clean, classically poised account of Tchaikovsky’s famous score (strings reduced in number).

Gary Avis (Drosselmeyer)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton (2015)

But in so many ways the performance belonged to Gary Avis’ Drosselmeyer, a key character in Wright’s vision of the ballet with the backstory played out in the little prologue. You could tell just what it meant to Avis to return to this beloved role, urging that tree to grow to its full dramatic height in Act 1, scattering an even bigger handful of glitter than ever. His Drosselmeyer may just have saved Christmas, although the government’s reassessment of tiers next week could plunge London’s theatres into darkness again, which would be a travesty given the heroic work done to make venues Covid-secure for performers and audiences. We may well need Avis to work some wider magic before the festive season is out.