The Nutcracker, The Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera House, London
A socially distanced audience was back at the Royal Opera House, including seats in the stalls and with a reduced orchestra returning to the pit for The Royal Ballet’s live performances of Peter Wright’s delightful version of The Nutcracker. It remains one of the best productions in the world, even after so many years (this was the 497th performance by The Royal Ballet at the ROH). It seemed extra special this year because, like the rest of the arts, indeed the world, they very nearly didn’t make it. While it was a fuller house compared to the gala evenings, it was still less than half the usual capacity. Yet, enthusiasm and the thrill of being back again made the crowd roar. As Koen Kessels took up his baton to conduct the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, he must have felt the warmth emanating from behind him, in the auditorium. In spite of some changes to accommodate the pandemic rules including reductions in numbers, a couple of cuts and a re-choreographed Battle Scene (Will Tuckett), the production lacked for nothing.
Casting is always important but when a company has such strength within the ranks as well at the top, a performance such as this is an experience to relish. What is evident is that Kevin O’Hare, pandemic or not, is increasingly bringing on his younger dancers in preparation for ever more dazzling futures. Right from the beginning, David Yudes startled as Herr Drosselmeyer’s assistant with his suspended jumps, hovering in the air, as if taking his time to decide when to land. Frau and Dr Stahlbaum’s party, as a result of Covid, was not the frenetic domain of numerous children (just a handful) but felt celebratory enough and we had the pleasures of Kristen McNally and Philip Mosley as the grandparents, who pack comedic detail into their performances without ever upstaging the main protagonists.
Also showing supreme excellence in the doll dances were Téo Dubreuil and Isabella Gasparini as Harlequin and Columbine, and Joseph Sissens and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the Soldier and Vivandière – all gave immaculate renditions.
In the pared down transformation scene, Tuckett has managed to refocus us on the important action, which worked wonders – and the growing Christmas tree still brought a lump to the throat. David Donnelly, another young dancer who is making steady progress, was an imposing Mouse King. But in this first act, we were fully engaged with the performances of Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Clara and James Hay as Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker, a sublime pairing. Of course they are technically accomplished with beautiful lines, excellent ballon and superb use of the metatarsals, resulting in very stretched feet and controlled landings. However, it is their believable storytelling which wins us over completely. Charming, vulnerable, with palpable chemistry, it brought them together in a joyous union. The snowflake scene was down 8 flakes from 24 to 16 but still flurried with all the zest required. And one cannot write about The Nutcracker without mentioning Gary Avis, a superlative interpreter of Herr Drosselmeyer, the architect of this tale. He just continues to grow and add nuanced moments which always appear entirely spontaneous. He presides over this act (and the next) with a perfect balance between dominance and reticence.
Act II feels like stepping into an opulent palace filled with sparkles galore (designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman transport us throughout). The Spanish and Arabian divertissements were absent, but dare I say it, not noticeably so. Leo Dixon and Calvin Richardson were fabulous in the Chinese; Ashley Dixon, Gasparini, Hinkis and Romany Pajdak were warm and twinkly as the Mirlitons and the Russian dance of Giacomo Rovero and Yudes was highly impressive. Claire Calvert gracefully led her bevy of truly outstanding leading flowers, escorts and corps de ballet flowers. It was a treat to sit back and enjoy so much collective talent. A quick mention for Hay’s explanation to The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince of how he found himself in their Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets. He was wonderfully animated, so clear in his narrative – it was impossible not to accept and be entertained by his story.
And so to the icing on this already delectable confection, the Sugar Plum and her Prince. While Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov hardly need an introduction, they do continue to reinvent themselves by improving (if that’s possible) the ever more wondrous delivery and standards of their performances. They are increasingly flawless, more relaxed and more filled with movements that give them a particular way of finishing a step or coming out of a supported pirouette. Nuñez has a way of giving a sweeping port de bras, almost curling her back around the end of a series of turns which gives the phrase a very graceful conclusion. Both solos were impossible to fault, with his pantherine, soundless jumps and landings and her elegance and glittering ballerina quality.
This was a triumph for all sorts of reasons and one of those was lifting the spirits of everyone participating in the event, whether in front, behind or in the middle of the pit. To call it magical is an understatement – it was other worldly, unforgettable, glorious.
By Deborah Weiss