DVD Ballet Reviews
By Alidë Kohlhaas
Unlike Europe, where the Nutcracker ballet is mostly an infrequent offering by major ballet companies, in North America, The Nutcracker is a balletic staple of large and small companies during November and December. It is hard to pass through any city of size in Canada or the United States without being confronted by ads for a production of this ballet. Once again this year in the Toronto area alone there are at least three productions of a very different nature of The Nutcracker. Their common ground is the endearing and enduring score written by Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky. This review, however, is not about a North American production, but about the Royal Opera House (ROH) production staged in 2009. Captured on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte, the ROH's version leans heavily on the original from 1892. It thus bucks the trend to create more modern or place-related interpretations, reduction of the musical score, and independent choreography or staging.
Choreographer, Sir Peter Wright, reconstructed the Waltz of the Snowflakes for the ROH from choreographic notations made in St. Petersburg within the immediate years after its first performance. When Lev Ivanov took over from an ill Marius Pepita to complete the choreography of the first production of The Nutcracker, this particular feature of the ballet was touted one of Ivanov's greatest creations. Yet, in successive stagings Ivanov's steps and patterns were lost to succeeding generations of choreographers as they borrowed from others and then put their own interpretations on this sequence as well as on the entire ballet.
Wright studied the notations from the pre-WWI years that are now located in the Harvard Theater Collection. When you watch his work on the disc, you will surely come to agree that his careful study has produced a wonderful effect. A balletomane, who recalled the original 1892 Nutcracker, wrote, "the hachures and patterns of snow crystals, the monograms and arabesques of the plastique of frost [gathered] into one well-proportioned, artistically finished vision." Wright certainly captured this to perfection.
There are other elements in this ROH version, which remains true to Tchaikovsky's score, that are just as effective and pleasing to watch. For one, Wright found a way to create a whole out of what is essentially a disjointed work of two unrelated acts. He goes back to A.T.F. Hoffmann's original ending of that writer's very dark fairytale, The Nutcracker and the King of Mice (Der Nussknacker und der Mauskönig) first published in 1816. Hoffmann's lengthy tale branched off into various transformations, but then he let Clara (or Marie as called in the original) meet Drosselmeyer's nephew in later life. Hoffmann, therefore, from fantasy to reality in his story. Wright chose to let Clara wake up, run outside into the snowy morning where she meets a youth who seems familiar, but she cannot recall where she met him. The youth is, of course, Drosselmeyer's nephew on the way home to his uncle after having been freed of the wicked spell that turned him into a wooden nutcracker aided by Clara. Only, neither recall this at this brief meeting. This return to reality allows us to imagine that sometime, when both grow up, they will meet again.
In case you do not know the story, here is a summary. Before the actual story begins the magician and mechanical toy maker Drosselmeyer invented a mousetrap that killed off half of the mouse population in the royal palace. The wicked Queen of the Mice punishes him for doing so by turning his nephew, Hans-Peter, into an unhandsome wooden nutcracker. The only way to break that spell is through the Nutcracker finding a way to kill the Mouse King. At the same time, a young girl must love the ugly wooden doll despite its appearance.
Herr Drosselmeyer is invited to entertain guests at the Christmas party given by the Stahlbaum family. He views this as his chance to free Hans-Peter because the Stahlbaums's daughter Clara is just about the same age as the boy. To ensure that all goes well, he also creates a special Christmas Angel to guide Clara through her task.
Clara loves the Nutcracker, and when all are asleep, sneaks downstairs where time becomes suspended and she encounters the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. With some help from Clara, the enemy is slain and Hans-Peter is freed. But the story does not end there. First the two youngsters are magically transported into the world of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince in The Kingdom of Sweets.
This is where the Grand pas de deux between the Fairy and Prince happens, preceded by the Spanish Dance, the Arabian Dance, the Chinese Dance, the Russian Dance, Dance of the Mirlitons, and the Waltz of the Flowers.
Wright has managed to capture the magic of the story, aided by Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs, Christopher Carr's staging and Mark Henderson's lighting. And, one must not forget the music, beautifully rendered by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under conductor, Koen Kessels, and the London Oratory Junior Choir, directed by Charles Cole.
Although the names of the dancers are not familiar to me, their dancing soon captured my attention. Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Steven McRae as her Prince give elegant performances that carry the grand pas deux to an outstanding climax. Ionah Loots is a sweet, innocent Clara, perfect as the heroine of this ballet. Ricardo Cervera as the handsome Hans-Peter/Nutcracker lives up to all expectations of this double role. Gary Avis exploits the role of Drosselmeyer well, infusing just the right amount of melancholy as well as bravado into the part.
Considering the growing pains of The Nutcracker, which received a cold reception in St. Petersburg in 1892, it is amazing the ballet survived. One of the complaints was that there were too many children in this ballet, another that the ballet had obviously been designed for children. It proves the maxim of that age that children may be seen but not heard. It makes one smile for today most children on this continent are familiar with the ballet in one form or another.
Tchaikovsky came to this ballet reluctantly as did Pepita. Neither liked the proposed story, which was The Nutcracker of Nuremburg, which was based on Dumas pčre's version that the French writer had borrowed from the German Hoffmann. Eventually Ivan A. Vsevolojsky, the director of the Russian Imperial Theaters, convinced the composer to accept the commission. At first Tchaikovsky disliked the music he created, but then he grew fond of it and was disappointed when the ballet failed to find the same favor as his short opera, Iolanthe. Both premiered at the Maryinsky Theater on December 17, 1892.
Although I viewed the Blu-ray version of this Opus Arte filming of The Nutcracker, I am sure that the quality of the DVD will be just as good. I judge this from the many Opus Arte DVDs I have viewed in the past.
This disc also includes these special features: Wright telling the story of The Nutcracker to a group of children (a charming experience for young and old, by the way; rehearsals of the ballet; and a cast gallery.