The Christmas season is with us once more, and with it comes the Royal Opera Houses almost annual revival of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. And whilst the programme may inform us that Peter Wright’s production is now twenty-five years old, you only have to watch the first five minutes to realise that, in actual fact, it’s timeless.
The production oozes charm, thanks in part to Julia Trevelyan Omans beautifully crafted sets. The first main scene is set at the Stahlbaum’s house, and, through some exquisite attention to detail, conveys a real sense of a Christmas party at a wealthy family’s home.
All human life is here, and there are some very telling touches such as when a small boy snatches a toy rabbit from his wheelchair-bound relative, showing far more interest in the present than the giver.
Gary Avis may have faced more technically challenging roles than that of the magician, Drosselmeyer, but he delivers superbly as he entertains the guests with his tricks, there being a certain sparkle in every gesture he makes. Then when the scenes warm and homely feel is complemented by the spiky vibrancy of Brian Mahoney’s Harlequin and Bethany Keating’s Columbine, you start feeling that ballet experiences don’t come much better than this.
As all this gives way to Scene Four it is impressive to see how a far colder performance area can be created simply by substituting a few standing items, and growing the Christmas tree several feet taller. In it, we see Hans-Peter (Ricardo Cervera) defeat the Mouse King (David Pickering), who had originally turned him into the Nutcracker, but only with the help of his new-found love, Clara (Iohna Loots). Their subsequent pas de deux is captivating as she demonstrates vitality and elegance in equal measure, and he cuts through the air with a light and effortless grace.
If the Dance of the Snowflakes, complemented by singing from the London Oratory Junior Choir, ends Act One on a high, Act Two is even better as we are taken to the Kingdom of Sweets, with its sumptuous set, and witness the Nutcracker Suite. The turns of Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Stephen McRae as the Prince, deserve all the applause they get, whilst the Arabian and Chinese dances are particularly fine.
It does not, however, entirely work to incorporate Loots and Cervera into some of these dances. Excellent though they are, they cannot always match the standard of the performers chosen specifically for their expertise in the required style. This manifests itself most clearly in the Russian dance where Cervera lacks the Cossack strength and panache of Paul Kay and Michael Kojko. Even in the superlative Waltz of the Flowers, Loots cannot quite live with Helen Crawford’s unique brand of seductive bite as the Rose Fairy, although overall these remain minor criticisms.
Just as remarkable as the dancing on stage is what is happening in the pit. Excepting a few dud notes from the brass, conductor Koen Kessels extracts an incredibly focused and beautifully rounded sound from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, and his command of the tempi is extraordinary throughout. Wrights production of The Nutcracker remains strong enough to transcend many imperfections in the performances of the dancers and players, but on this occasion it has very little to cover up for.