What a treat to be back at the Royal Opera House to watch The Nutcracker. The Opera House has satisfied the requirements for social distancing by seating people in alternate rows with at least two seats between adjacent households. Facemasks and a smaller audience made the response to the dancers somewhat muted, but spontaneous applause and cheers erupted during the second act, after a half hour interval.
In the meantime, the reduced orchestra sounded thin at the start but warmed up later, and that glorious moment when the Nutcracker doll transforms into a prince, after Clara has helped him defeat the Mouse King, was musical magic under the baton of Koen Kessels (not Barry Wordsworth as advertised in the online cast list). With fewer dancers on stage than normal, the first act was a subdued version of its usual self, until Joseph Sissens and Meaghan Grace Hinkis danced a terrific vignette as the soldier and vivandiere, two of the life-sized dolls brought on by Clara’s godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer. Suddenly the performance seemed to take flight and was brilliantly held together by the wonderful Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer. He was the catalyst for uniting the worlds of reality and childhood imagination.
This Peter Wright production starts during the overture, as Drosselmeyer gazes at a picture of his nephew, in military regalia, on the wall. In some productions the ballet ends with Clara returning to sleep, as the dancers conjured up from the Land of Sweets take their leave. Here, however, in the final moments of the ballet the noble young Nutcracker enters Drosselmeyer’s house and embraces his long-lost uncle. The spell that confined him within the body of a toy soldier designed to crack nuts is broken since Clara has helped by knocking out the Mouse King with her slipper. Love beckons, bringing her childhood world to an end.
Wright’s production is a clever way to frame a story based on ETA Hoffmann’s original tale that continuously mingles the worlds of reality and fantasy. It was a tough call for Marius Petipa to prepare a ballet scenario from such an extraordinary story. But supported by Tchaikovsky’s terrific score, it has worked for generations of audiences and is a great vehicle for the Royal Ballet to begin recovering from the privations of Covid-19. Among some of the superb dancing in the second act, Claire Calvert made a lovely Rose Fairy, and Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov formed a picture of elegant perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, a fine contrast to the youthful vitality exuded by Anna-Rose O’Sullivan as Clara and James Hay as her Nutcracker prince.
Finally, the Royal Ballet is back, fighting the pandemic just as the Nutcracker defeats the Mouse King.
The Nutcracker is at the Royal Opera House until 3 January 2021 (Sold out, returns only)
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