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See latest reviews of other albums..., October 2016

Conductor Koen Kessels and the Royal Opera House Orchestra bring Tchaikovsky’s ravishing music to life and the corps de ballet are in fine form for the enchanting snowflake waltz. Choreographer Peter Wright’s glorious production remains as fresh as ever after 25 years, and Julia Trevelyan Oman’s fabulous designs, rich with period detail, include an ingenious magical Christmas tree that grows and grows. © 2016 Read complete review

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2011

If you are one of those who think there’s nothing new under the sun, particularly so far as The Nutcracker goes, this production will turn your world on its ear. Moreover, it is the very best Nutcracker production, and performance, I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen some good ones (Cincinnati Ballet’s classic 1970s production, elements of which were “borrowed” by ballet companies around the country; Balanchine’s not-so-classic New York production of the same decade; and Baryshnikov’s unusual but ultimately failed attempt at it in the 1980s).

Choreographer Peter Wright, now 81, has first and foremost revamped the narrative of the plot to make it more sensible and, in both plot restructuring and staging, managed to make the usually fragmented and boring act II more continuous with act I. Second, it is, in costuming and set design, both lavish and traditional, yet with numerous little touches that clearly point to an updating. And third, it is so well cast, from the principal roles down to the very last flower, mirliton, mouse, and child dancer, that it is almost mind-boggling. In short, this is as close to a perfect Nutcracker as you are likely to see in your lifetime.

It’s so good, in fact, that I must say this, it was not merely a pleasure but a privilege for me to review it. If it weren’t so obvious that every single cast member is really enjoying himself or herself in addition to being brilliant onstage, it might have been one of those cold-but-perfect experiences that continue to crop up on video, but everyone certainly looks as if they enjoy giving this performance as much as the audience enjoys watching it.

Pride of place goes to Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy rather than Iohna Loots as Clara, but only because Yoshida is jaw-droppingly stunning whereas Loots is “merely” fabulous. Principal ballerina of the Royal Ballet for at least a decade, Yoshida gives here a performance on par with late-period Margot Fonteyn. There are a few very tiny breaks in form, but otherwise, she is perfect. And I mean PERFECT. I even get the impression that Loots herself enjoys watching this performance—how could she not? Yet Loots is an exceptional dancer, with outstanding entrechats and excellent form. It also helps, from the believability standpoint, that she is a very small woman with a youthful face, so it is quite easy for her to play a 14-years-old without the audience thinking, “14, my eye.” Ricardo Cervera, as her nutcracker and, later, prince, is equally outstanding. He’s the best I’ve seen in many a year, capable of extraordinary leaps, fancy footwork, and spins that put me in mind of Roman Jasinski. In the second act, he even joins the Russian dancers and takes center stage during the kazatsky!

Wright’s genius is in rethinking the entire Nutcracker plot, divorcing the first act from the shattered remnants of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story (which had been thoroughly diluted by Marius Petipa in the first place) and creating a new narrative structure into which everything fits. In Wright’s Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer had previously invented a trap for a royal household that killed off half the mouse population. In revenge, the wicked Mouse Queen cast a spell over his nephew, Hans-Peter, turning him into an ugly nutcracker doll. The only way to break the spell is for a young girl to love and care for him despite his awful appearance, and have him slay the Mouse King. In this context, Wright creates a prelude scene played out during the overture, showing Drosselmeyer in his study, looking longingly at a portrait of his cursed nephew and wrapping up the “nutcracker” as a Christmas gift for his favorite niece, Clara. In this production, Drosselmeyer forsakes the usual grotesque makeup and costuming borrowed from Hoffmann; he is older but distinguished-looking, wearing a flowing cape (which Gary Avis really knows how to throw around the stage!), performing numerous magic tricks for his family at the Christmas party (and which he pulls off splendidly), and continuing his appearance after most Drosselmeyers have disappeared for the duration. He comes out of the standing “owl clock” to direct the scene during the growing of the tree, sprinkles glitter across the stage to presage the appearance of angels (who really do appear to be floating across the stage…watch their controlled positions in these and other scenes!), and brings in the magic carriage that takes Clara and the now-transformed Hans-Peter to the second act, where Drosselmeyer puts on an entertainment to salute both of them for their bravery.

This new scenario works brilliantly and, as I said, it establishes continuity in the second act by having Cervera and Loots participate in some of the dances. Costuming and lighting are flawless, and the entire production has the quality of a dream. Not just the angels, but everyone else as well, appears to be literally floating across the stage as they move with the gossamer lighting effects and their controlled body positioning. Mother Goose is dispensed with (thank goodness). At the end, Hans-Peter puts his cloak over Clara’s bare shoulders as a keepsake, then returns to his uncle’s study—the very scene of the opening—to be embraced by the older man and bring closure to the entire production.

If you are a Nutcracker fan, or know someone who is, you MUST buy this DVD. If you are a choreographer or set designer, you must see how Wright and set designer Julia Oman work hand-in-glove to produce a masterpiece. And if you’re a dancer, you need to have this disc in your collection to watch, over and over and over again. You won’t believe your eyes at the sheer perfection of it all. Your jaw will drop, too, and you’ll understand how the usually staid Covent Garden audience goes absolutely berserk, screaming and applauding this Nutcracker—and particularly Yoshida—in a way British audiences rarely do. The bonus rehearsal sequence shows, as usual, some of the hard work behind the perfection, but also shows how Wright prods, cajoles, and encourages the children into giving their best—and, as he puts it, “for heaven’s sake, enjoy yourself!”

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, March 2011

The whole show is a marvelous delight with expert accompaniment from Kessels and the Royal Opera House Orchestra. [Also] available in DVD.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

James Reel
Fanfare, March 2011

I’m wary of absolutes and superlatives, so I won’t follow my colleague’s lead and declare this to be “the best” Nutcracker I’ve ever seen, but it is a fine one indeed. I watched the Blu-ray version, so I’ll limit my comments to more technical aspects of the production (except for, first, pointing out that there’s a clue at the end that the whole thing may be Drosselmeyer’s dream, another interesting but not outlandish departure from the norm; and, second, wondering exactly what a couple of creatures resembling Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things are doing at the act I party, trailing a candy-dispensing figure evoking the Bishop of Hippo, St Nicholas himself).

Honestly, I’m not sure that Blu-ray casts this production in a better light than standard DVD, and I mean that literally. Mark Henderson’s lighting design together with Julia Trevelyan Oman’s costumes confine most of the party scene to sepia and earth tones, meant to convey homey warmth but also making everyone look a bit jaundiced. The second act is less aggressively beige, but there’s not enough vivid color (or deep black) onstage to take advantage of high-definition technology. Where it is useful are in the opening and closing scenes in Drosselmeyer’s dim study, the dark greens and blues and purples of some fabrics always clearly distinct in the murk.

The most pertinent comparison is to Opus Arte’s Blu-ray edition of the San Francisco Ballet production, which moves the action to the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair (Covent Garden sets the first act in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s period, roughly a century earlier). A few of the Covent Garden dancers outshine their San Francisco counterparts, but their superiority is not overwhelming. I do prefer Covent Garden’s better through-line in the divertissement, keeping Clara and her ex-Nutcracker involved in the action and not letting the whole thing become the Sugar Plum Fairy’s story, which it threatens to do in San Francisco (and in many other versions). The Covent Garden orchestral contribution, led by Koen Kessels, is also more consistently engaged than what we hear from San Francisco, although it’s still not quite at the Mackerras level.

So this is a lovely, highly accomplished production whose little departures from the traditional storyline won’t confuse anyone (at least, not if they’ve read the booklet essay), and whose other virtues should cause widespread delight.

Jeffrey Kauffman, November 2010

Christmas is a time of nostalgia, of memories and perhaps even a bit of wistful and wishful thinking about the glories of bygone days. It’s therefore fitting that the Royal Opera House production of Tchaikovsky’s evergreen (pun intended) Nutcracker relishes in its period charm the way an excited child gallops into a pile of snow. This production is going on a quarter of a century old now, and it has become a tradition of its own for British children of all ages. There’s nothing remotely new or innovative about this outing, and that only seems to highlight its pure, unadulterated joy. We’ve had a somewhat tricked out Nutcracker on Blu-ray already, the splendid on its own terms San Francisco production which was released about a year ago, and so this more staid and traditional production makes a nice companion piece. It’s perhaps shocking to realize, especially when watching something to staunchly traditional, seemingly etched into our collective unconscious, that The Nutcracker was not exactly a smash hit when it first trod the boards well over a century ago. Tchaikovsky was coming off a considerable success after the resounding premiere of Sleeping Beauty, and everyone expected The Nutcracker to follow in those esteemed footsteps. Perhaps due to regular choreographer Marius Petipa falling ill, or perhaps due to limitations within the libretto of the ballet itself (something Tchaikovsky himself seemed to realize), The Nutcracker opened to fairly withering reviews and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, was largely shelved for the next several decades, only seeing sporadic productions. In fact the ballet wasn’t even regularly done at Christmastime, despite its setting. It’s funny how some traditions seem, well, less traditional when fully exposed to the sometimes disconcerting light of history. Be that as it may, The Nutcracker has become the seasonal ballet non pareil, an easily accessible way for parents to introduce their children to the glories both of classical dance and classical music simultaneously, and this Royal Opera House production plays up the lushness of both arts with considerable finesse.

There’s no accounting for taste. I have it on good authority that one young boy a few years (or more) ago was dragged kicking and screaming to a production of The Nutcracker, a production he resolutely refused to even watch despite having front row seats in a very opulent theater housing an extremely well known ballet company. Instead this young boy decided to exhibit his displeasure at the indignity of being forced to go to a “girl’s” event like ballet by turning his face and thrusting it deep in the red velvet pile of the back of the theater seat. For two hours. But enough about me. Hopefully my childhood antics weren’t mimicked by any of the British children taken to see this sumptuous production by the Royal Ballet on what, from the framing scenes shot outside the Royal Opera House, looks like a perfectly snowy wintry night on which to see the famous piece.

There’s no denying that there’s not a lot of viscerally exciting elements in The Nutcracker, and that in fact was one of the chief complaints of early critics of the piece. But taken on its own stolid terms, this is a perfect evening’s entertainment, especially for children and the young at heart, with just the right amount of magic, both real (as in stagecraft) and imagined (as in the fantasy setting of the second act). If Petipa’s replacement Lev Ivanov is often thought of as a sort second string choreographer, there’s no denying the magnificent tableaux Ivanov crafted for the specialty dances in that second act. And the first act, while sometimes hobbled by less than professional dancing by children (something this production unfortunately repeats), nonetheless draws the children in the audience into the event by dint of the fact that there are children onstage.

The Royal Opera House has been presenting Peter Wright’s slight revisions of Ivanov’s version for decades now, and they have their act down pat. If the kids in Act One are a little unruly, too exuberant and not disciplined enough to evince a true corps de ballet, they at least have youthful vigor on their side. The corps work of the adults, especially in Act Two, is splendid and precise. Gary Davis chews the scenery in a balletic way as Herr Drosselmeyer, and Iohna Loots and Ricardo Cervera make an appealing romantic duo as Clara and Hans-Peter, the poor soul trapped in The Nutcracker. Their pas de deux closing Act I is lovely and lyrical, ably setting the stage for the magnificent Waltz of the Snowflakes.

The specialty dances of Act II all come off without a hitch, several exhibiting some fairly fierce athleticism. The audience is obviously enthralled, spending almost ten minutes in ovations for the cast. Koen Kessels leads the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a colorful, if not exactly fiery, interpretation that has a few balance issues (discussed in the audio section below). This is a gorgeously evocative production of The Nutcracker. No, it’s nothing new, and for some it will seem more than a bit musty. But like going home for Christmas, it’s a comfortable feeling that is full of warmth and more than a little bit of magic.

Video Quality

The Nutcracker pirouhettes onto Blu-ray with a very sharp looking AVC encoded transfer in 1080i and 1.78:1. This is in fact one of the nicer looking ballet that we’ve had from Opus Arte, which almost always does such a splendid job with its classically oriented BD releases. Here we’re treated to a wonderful amount of fine detail and some especially lovely color, brilliantly saturated and robust. This is a really sumptuous physical production, and the Blu-ray offers a lot of detail in the gorgeous costumes, which run the gamut from pastel colors to vibrant primary colors, and the very evocative background paintings. Close-ups reveal a wealth of detail in both costumes and the dancers themselves. Some of the animal costumes are very whimsical, and every whisker on the Mouse King’s head can be counted. Black levels and contrast are very strong throughout this presentation.

Audio Quality

There’s nothing really egregiously horrible about either of the lossless tracks on this Blu-ray, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0, so don’t get too worried about my score and comments here. But after having been reviewing so many of the fine classical releases by Opus Arte and some of the other labels distributed by Naxos, I’ve perhaps developed more of an ear for very slight differences in quality. While there’s nothing innately wrong with the recording here, there are some balance issues when individual instruments play that I can’t help but wonder about. These are especially noticeable right off the bat in the Overture, when the flute and clarinet solos can barely be heard above the orchestral mass. If you can get past this transitory issue, you’re left with a very solid, if not exactly exciting, reading of this score, presented with wonderful fidelity and clarity, and extremely expressive dynamic range. The entire spectrum of frequencies sound exquisite here, with some thundering lows in the brass and tympani and nice hall ambience from the near perfect acoustics of the Royal Opera House pit.

Special Features and Extras

Three above average supplements are included. While the cast gallery is fairly standard, Rehearsals at White Lodge (HD; 10:12) is a charming look at the kids in the cast learning their steps, and Peter Wright Tells the Story of ‘The Nutcracker’ (HD; 8:51) is an equally charming little piece of director Wright relating Hoffmann’s original conception to the kids.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Sometimes the tried and true is all that’s required. We get enough glitz and supposed innovation through the year with any number of dunderheaded productions of various ballets and operas. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy an old friend. That’s the case with this traditional but very pleasing outing of The Nutcracker. Recommended.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, November 2010

Here’s something traditionally appropriate for the holiday system. The story line of Tchaikovsky’s famous and truly beloved Nutcracker two act ballet is presented in the first act. The magician Drosselmeyer had invented a trap that killed off much of the royal palace’s mouse population. The wicked Queen of Mice retaliated by casting a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter transforming him into a very unattractive Nutcracker doll. The spell can only be broken if the Nutcracker slays the Mouse King. In Act 2, the freed Hans-Peter is taken on a magical journey to the Kingdom of Sweets. There the entertainment consists of the beautifully performed and much loved unique Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and Mirliton Dances plus the famous Waltz of the Flowers. All this in the second act is performed in rather traditional ballet costumes, unlike the costuming in most of the first act. The audio quality is excellent, detailed and well balanced over the entire musical range. There is a natural pleasing fullness overall with a smooth and sweet high end, no digital harshness is to be heard. Those are qualities appreciated by music lovers of all ages. An easy recommendation is earned here.

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