, November 2009
This is a gloriously colorful and ceaselessly imaginative new production of a piece which is too often sadly staid and bound by tradition. With a really beautiful scenic design by Michael Yeargan and a spate of both gorgeous and fanciful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, this is a production that revels in the visual as much as it does in Tchaikovsky’s luscious music (music he himself wasn’t particularly fond of, but composers are frequently not the best judges of their output). The dancing is similarly wonderful, with Davit Karapetyan’s Nutcracker Prince and Vanessa Zahorian’s Sugar Plum Fairy standouts amidst a uniformly excellent cast. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Martin West may not be the definitive interpreters of this score, but they play with a lot of vigor and care, and the music itself has a goodly amount of momentum and fun.
I know from personal experience, both my own as a child and later with my own sons, that kids, especially boys, are not going to be shouting with glee if they’re told they’re off to see The Nutcracker. You might just end up surprising them by showing them this version; it has just the right amount of visual ingenuity to keep kids enthralled, and they don’t need to know they’re being exposed to one of the most colorful ballet scores ever written.
This is one glorious looking Nutcracker, courtesy of a very sharp AVC encoded image which contains some of the most lustrous color and fine detail I’ve experienced lately. There is so much to enjoy visually here that it’s a shame to single just a few items out for individual comment. But aside from the beautiful scenic design, which has just the right amount of Christmas cheer in its reds and greens, the costume designs are uniformly lovely and offer some incredible hues (notice the brilliant purples, reds and golds of Drosselmeyer’s jacket, for instance) as well as textures (the mice’s furry legs can be seen in all their rodent glory). No artificating of any major degree was noticed throughout the 90 or so minutes, and indeed I was continually impressed at the level of detail. In the snowy finale to Act I, individual "snowflakes" can be almost counted as they fall from the flies. Similarly the ballerinas’ lacy costumes provide a delicate counterpoint to this wintery flight of whimsy. This is a wonderfully visual ballet, something all too rare as strange as that sounds, and this Blu-ray supports it marvelously.
While some Tchaikovsky purists may have some very minor passing qualms with this performance, which just occasionally lacks the fire of some of the better versions, little fault can be found in the LPCM 5.0 recording (and to a lesser extent its 2.0 sibling). This is a score full of a really wide range of frequencies, including of course Tchaikovsky’s famous repeated use of the celesta (frequently incorrectly thought of as appearing only in The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies). From those high bell tones to the deepest brass and low strings, this LPCM 5.0 offers excellent, often superb, fidelity with a real warmth and lifelike hall ambience throughout. Separation is similarly excellent here, with strong, clearly defined and delineated brass and strings. Immersion is excellent, though rear channels seem to basically be utilized for ambient hall effects, thereby creating a sort of sonic mirror image to the front 3 channels.
Aside from the standard illustrated synopsis and cast gallery, this Nutcracker provides several fun, if brief, extras, including:
- An Interview With Helgi Tomasson (HD, 7:21), offers the choreographer of this version giving some background on other Nutcracker versions and his personal take on the tradition.
- An Interview With Michael Yeargan (HD, 7:58). The Nutcracker’s ace production designer talks about the influence of San Francisco on his scenic design.
- An Interview With Martin Pakledinaz (HD, 8:54), finds the costume designer of this production showing how he crafted both traditional and more fanciful costumes.
- The 1915 World’s Fair (HD, 9:38) is for my money the best extra feature on this BD, with a really interesting, if far too brief, overview of the exhibition which inspired the look and feel of this Nutcracker.
- A brief promo piece for this production’s sponsor, Republic Bank, is also included.
The Nutcracker is one of those holiday staples that, like fruitcake, isn’t often very deeply appreciated. Unlike fruitcake, this is a fresh and imaginative new production that restores a modicum of visual ingenuity to the proceedings and makes it perhaps more accessible to American audiences. It’s a near perfect entertainment for this time of the year and comes highly recommended.