Nutcracker, Royal Ballet, ROH, December 2018Posted on 4 December 2018
Tchaikovsky’s final ballet contains some of his most glorious music, but you wouldn’t know it from this dull and occasionally too forceful rendering of the score conducted by Barry Wordsworth. A pity too because the dancing was superb.
As Clara, Anna Rose O’Sullivan was full of lightness and youthful wonder, with beautiful arm movements, and her godfather Drosselmeyer was magically personified by the wonderful Gary Avis. The original story by E. T. A. Hoffmann mixes the real and imaginary worlds in a way the ballet never can, but Peter Wright’s production manages the mixture very skilfully. During the overture we see Drosselmeyer in his workshop gazing at a portrait of his nephew Hans-Peter, maliciously trapped inside the nutcracker doll. At the very end he returns to embrace his uncle, after Clara has helped him slay the Mouse King and release the spell.
The visit she and her beloved Nutcracker (the wonderfully nimble Marcelino Sambé) make to the land of childhood delights in Act II creates another link between reality and dreams as both join in the character dances. These were superbly danced, with Melissa Hamilton particularly notable in the Arabian dance, though the music lacked an edge of mystery, but this was the fault of the conductor. The music for the Spanish dance lacked pizzazz, for the Russian it lacked punch and for the Flowers it lacked charm, despite delightful dancing and Fumi Kaneko’s wonderful performance as the Rose Fairy. For the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, the brass was too heavy, and the musical effect was bumptious rather than thrilling. But Marianela Nuñez was perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Vadim Mutagirov gave a superb performance of her Cavalier.
If you concentrate on the dancing though, as most people do, then this was terrific, not just in Act II, but in Act I with the superbly clockwork precision of the dolls: Harlequin (Benjamin Ella), Columbine (Elizabeth Harrod), the Soldier (Paul Kay) and Vivandière (Meaghan Grace Hinkis), and there was excellent corps work with the Snowflakes.
Yet the conducting let the music lose its emotional magic at important points. Clara’s raising up of the wounded Nutcracker is a quietly sublime moment that lost its emotional pull, and where Tchaikovsky creates magic on a downward scale at the start of the Sugar Plum pas-de-deux it vanished into ponderous irrelevance. The Royal Opera House orchestra is far better than this, as they showed recently in Simon Boccanegra. Ballet may get fewer rehearsals, but Nutcracker has been beautifully conducted before by the ballet company’s music director Koen Kessels. He will take over some of the performances in this run — but why not the first night, screened live to cinema audiences?
Performances, now largely sold out, continue with various casts on various dates until January 15 — details here.