Nutcrackers seem to come round earlier every year. My inner Scrooge usually rebels against anything remotely festive before December, but as soon as Tchaikovsky’s Miniature Overture starts up and the curtains rise to reveal Gary Avis as magical toymaker Drosselmeyer in his little workshop, I relent. There’s simply no better Christmas treat than The Nutcracker, especially in Sir Peter Wright’s sumptuous version for The Royal Ballet, which is a sugar-encrusted jewel in the company’s repertoire.

Anna Rose O'Sullivan (Clara) and Gary Avis (Drosselmeyer)
© ROH | Alastair Muir (2018)

Last year’s scheduled run was cruelly curtailed after just a couple of performances when London went into another lockdown, so it was great to see a full house – although not many children – pack out the theatre for the first night of a marathon run of 31 performances. There are signs that the pandemic is still very much with us. There is no off-stage children’s choir in the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Although there were a few more children at the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party than in the Covid-tailored 2020 edition, Will Tuckett’s choreography for the battle scene is retained, replacing the usual 48 children with a dozen adult company members. It’s strikingly done, but one hopes that the youngsters from The Royal Ballet School rejoin the fray next time round.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in the Battle Scene
© ROH Rachel Hollings (2020)

In the Act 2 divertissement, the Spanish and Arabian Dances return, but the latter is now in the form of a pas de deux (deftly adapted by Avis, retaining much of Wright’s choreography) rather than the usual quartet. Also making a return is the Dancing Mistress in Act 1 – although Kristen McNally’s name was omitted from the online cast sheet.  

The major casting was more or less identical to last year’s opening performance, apart from Joseph Sissens replacing the originally scheduled James Hay. Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov still reign over The Kingdom of Sweets, she as pristine as ever in her celesta-saturated Sugar Plum Fairy variation, he aristocratic of bearing. Their polished Grand pas de deux gleamed with style and steely balances. At the heart of the tale, Avis’ Drosselmeyer is finely honed, his face etched with every nuance of the role of the mysterious man whose nephew, Hans-Peter, was transformed into a wooden nutcracker and is seeking a way to break the spell. His pockets – and hat – seemed fuller of glitter than ever!

Vadim Muntagirov (Prince) and Marianela Nuñez (Sugar Plum Fairy)
© ROH | Rachel Hollings (2020)

As Clara, the Stahlbaums’ daughter destined to save Hans-Peter, Anna Rose O’Sullivan charmed once again, full of grace in the moving forest scene pas de deux and wide-eyed wonder during Act 2’s character dances. She gets four performances later in the run as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Sissens was good as the Nutcracker, grappling with Tomas Mock’s dastardly Mouse King and a strong partner for O’Sullivan. His mime at the start of Act 2, recounting the tale of the battle, could be more vivid, but he was exuberant in the character dances, notably the Trepak’s cossack springs. Indeed, a strength of Wright’s version is that Clara and Hans-Peter are actively involved in most of these dances and not just passive observers.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in the Waltz of the Snowflakes
© ROH | Tristram Kenton (2015)

The divertissement was full of delicious ingredients: Melissa Hamilton was wonderfully sinuous in the luscious Arabian Dance, partnered by Lukas B Brændsrød; Luca Acri and David Yudes tickled as the Chinese Dance’s tumbling twins; Liam Boswell and Leo Dixon fizzed with energy in the Trepak; and Yuhui Choe danced a spotless Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers. The only slightly sour note in the evening came from the pit, a few rusty woodwind contributions marring the orchestra’s glowing performance under Koen Kessels. Otherwise, a crisp, perfectly baked start to the seasonal festivities.