The proliferation of Nutcrackers in London is a clear indication that we are approaching Christmas. Together with pantos, Christmas musicals and choral realness, this festive landscape can become quite cringy. Scrooge I am not, but sometimes all the cheesy sugar overload is a bit overwhelming. However, there is still hope out there, with shows that give you just the right amount of snow and a ton of artistry and beauty. The Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker is one of the lucky few.
Peter Wright’s production, while utterly traditional, has its own kind of magic, from the very detailed home of the Stalhbaums to the Sugar Garden, including a ride in the snow. It might not use the latest stage technology, but its timeless tricks are certainly entertaining and great to look at. The Christmas tree has its own great moment (the boy in front of me was just ecstatic – OK, it was me), as does the arrival at the Kingdom of Sweets. Of course it can be argued that the plot is quite thin, and that the second half is just a display of démodé exoticism and dancing virtuosity, but it is the overall spectacle and that feeling of uncompromising enjoyment that matters.
However, this particular performance – the 400th of this ballet at the Royal Opera House! – is graced by a wonderful cast, led by Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell as Clara and Hans-Peter/Nutcracker, and Iana Salenko and Steven McRae as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince. The action is, of course, led by classy magician Drosselmeyer, expertly and cape-swirlingly played by Gary Avis. In a production where, particularly in the first act, there is quite a lot of action going on, there has been deep attention to detail. All group scenes feel fluid and full of life, with sleek transitions and all of the special effects in place. The children from the Royal Ballet School are fantastic and thankfully the angels do not suffer any stage mishap this time.
It would be quite difficult to find a dancer more adequate for the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy than Salenko. Her beautiful line and technical impeccability make her perfect of the role, and she is this time expertly partnered by McRae, who adds his own charm and agility. Their Grand pas de deux is certainly the biggest highlight of the evening, and it is impossible not to fall under their spell. On the other hand, although the role of Clara can be easily overlooked, Hayward gives it a beautiful elegance. All other soloists – Nicol Edmonds as the Mouse King, Olivia Cowley in the Arabian Dance, and Jasmin Naghdi as the Rose Fairy – are equally proficient. However, it is particularly Naghdi, who recently danced the role of Juliet in K. Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet to great acclaim, that gives a stunning performance. It is, overall, a dream cast for a classic, brilliant production.
We cannot dare to forget, however, just how powerful P. I. Tchaikovsky’s music is. It is by itself the most important character, and it is done justice by conductor Boris Gruzin. Known by everyone but nonetheless a wonder to listen to, it is the score that makes this ballet not only a Christmas classic, but a wonderful piece of art, despite the sugary wrapping.
The Nutcracker is playing at the Royal Opera House until 14 January. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo: Tristram Kenton.