, December 2010
The Nutcracker was first performed as part of a double bill with the opera Iolanta. Opera North revived that coupling a few years ago, and a very enjoyable if somewhat long evening it was. More normally, however, the ballet is performed on its own. In that form it has the advantage of being more concise that the composer’s other ballets, and of being especially suitable as a Christmas entertainment given its setting at that season, a story revolving around a Christmas party, magical effects and fairy tale characters. Choreographers have devised many versions, some straying far from the original scenario, sometimes under the excuse of getting closer to Hoffman’s original story. As a result the choice for anyone wanting a DVD of the ballet ranges from versions by Mark Morris and Matthew Bourne to a whole series of more conventional accounts. There have been earlier versions by the Royal Ballet which I have seen in the past but am unable to compare directly with the present version of Peter Wright’s long-lived and very satisfactory choreography which is largely based on the original version by Lev Ivanov.
In fact I felt no great need for such comparisons. The Nutcracker is very much a company work, with a multitude of small parts and character roles, especially in the first Act. What is particularly striking about this DVD is the strength in depth of the company that the performance reveals. The very detailed and busy action during the first part of the initial party scene are very entertaining—a rarity with staged party scenes—although I found myself from time to time wishing for a very large screen to be able to see all that was happening.
Peter Wright’s version tells the story clearly and with relish, and is properly responsive to the changing character of the music. He makes the parts of Clara and the Nutcracker more prominent than some other “traditional” versions. I have not put it to the test but I can imagine that those children still receptive to the call of an interesting and well told story will find this enthralling even if they are not more generally interested in ballet. One of the “extras” is a verbal telling of the story by Peter Wright to pupils of the Royal Ballet School. Although they can be expected to know it already he tells it well so that they all manage to seem interested; I suspect that it would be worth playing this to less well informed children before playing them the ballet itself. Many of these Royal Ballet School pupils take part in the performance, as party guests, mice, angels and so on and another interesting “extra” shows them rehearsing for this. This certainly serves to demonstrate the sheer hard work involved in creating a performance like this from even the youngest members of the cast. This might be worth playing to children after they have seen the results of all the hard work.
It is easy to feel sympathy for orchestras playing for ballet, even when the score is as good as this. There is often a very real sense that many of the audience are there for the dancing and that the music is incidental at best. Nonetheless they put in a more than acceptable performance here, especially in the great Act 2 pas de deux. Elsewhere at times the demands of the dancers and choreographer seem to allow little room for the subtlety or flexibility in phrasing of which the woodwind in particular are clearly very capable.
The booklet contains an interesting article on the history of this ballet by Professor Roland John Wiley and a synopsis by Peter Wright. A minor thank you is due to Opus Arte for keeping the Main Titles free of music. All in all a fine performance of a justified favourite is given the presentation it deserves.