For some people, it’s the switching on of the Oxford Street lights. For others, it’s the aroma of cinnamon and citrus on Stir-Up Sunday. But for me, the festive season truly begins when Gary Avis’ Drosselmeyer scatters fistfuls of glitter into the air and the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree begins to grow. The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker returns as magical as ever to cast its spell over London audiences and – via the live cinema relay on opening night – thousands across the globe.

Anna Rose O'Sullivan (Clara) and Marcelino Sambé (Nutcracker/Hans-Peter)
© ROH | Alastair Muir

Sir Peter Wright’s 1984 production is a gem of the Roya Balletl’s repertory. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs continue to please, from the Biedermeier details of the Stahlbaums’ home to the icing sugar-dusted Kingdom of Sweets. Exquisitely costumed, it dazzles the eye and so does much of the dancing. Anna Rose O’Sullivan is a charming Clara, suitably girlish at the party, where she cradles the nutcracker given to her by Drosselmeyer. Yet when the nutcracker takes on human form, you see an inner ecstacy awaken in her and she grows up during her pas with Marcelino Sambé as they enter the Land of Snow.

In Wright’s staging, Clara is no mere spectator in the feast of dances presented in Act 2. O’Sullivan twinkled with the Mirlitons, caroused with the Cossacks and waltzed with the Flowers, the latter led by a classy Fumi Kaneko. The best of the divertissement, set to Tchaikovsky’s toothsome score, was the Arabian Dance, Melissa Hamilton sinuous, silky and beguiling. The children in the Act 1 party danced impeccably and the corps of snowflakes were tightly drilled in their waltz, ending in near blizzard conditions.

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

The Sugar Plum Fairy must be the briefest star role in classical ballet, yet, thanks to that famous celesta-peppered solo, it’s an iconic one. Marianela Núñez duly shone, radiating grace, poise and icy precision, sparkling chaîné turns as delicate as spun sugar. Her Prince was the elegant Vadim Muntagirov, entrechats dispatched with nonchalant ease, partnering Núñez in a Grand pas de deux of regal assurance.

But rather than Clara’s show – or the Sugar Plum Fairy’s – Wright’s version places Drosselmeyer right at the centre. Drawing on the darker elements of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s creepy tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, he creates a back-story to frame his production. In the prologue, Drosselmeyer mourns Hans Peter, his nephew, who was turned into a nutcracker by the Mouse Queen’s curse. Gary Avis immediately draws our sympathy and commands the stage with cape-twirling panache. Even now, seeing Avis dance the role for the umpteenth time, there are little details to notice afresh, such as when he inspects the toys the children have been given – the rabbit drummer, the toy soldiers – and you spot Drosselmeyer conjure up the idea of how he can draw Clara into saving the Nutcracker’s life – thus breaking the curse – by staging a battle. Details like this bring a character to life and Avis is a past master. 

Gary Avis (Drosselmeyer)
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2013)

Another past master is in the pit. Barry Wordsworth, former Music Director of The Royal Ballet, knows Tchaikovsky’s score like the back of his hand and led an assured account, sensibly paced, with teasing rubatos in the Mirlitons deliciously held.