The Nutcracker @ The Royal Opera House
Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without The Nutcracker: the fact that London is currently playing host to no fewer than three major productions is a clear sign that for many people Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet is as enduring a part of the festive season as celebrity-stuffed pantomimes and viral campaigns to get obscure songs to the top of the charts. Of the three productions in town, the Royal Ballet's is without doubt the ultimate.
The reason it works is simple – whenever the scenario presents an opportunity to be Christmassy, or sparkly, or magical, it seizes that opportunity with both ermin-clad hands and pooh-poohs any possible suggestion that it needs to be contemporary or edgy.
In the first act we join the Silberhaus family who are celebrating Christmas Eve in idyllic fashion, with dancing, presents and high-spirited tomfoolery. Into this scene of festive loveliness comes the mysterious magician Drosselmeyer, invited to perform tricks for the children, but armed with an ulterior motive – to free his nephew from an enchantment which has turned him into a Nutcracker (ok so it’s not very ulterior). He presents the Nutcracker to the young Clara, who is as enthusiastic about it as it’s possible to be about a decorative wooden kitchen utensil.
Eventually, worn out from having the nicest Christmas anyone has ever had, the family wonder off to bed, and the house falls silent… Until (but you saw this coming, right?) the magician waves his wand and Clara finds herself in the middle of a pitched battle between some gingerbread soldiers, now human-size and led by the suddenly rather dishy Nutcracker, and an army of giant mice. Also something really cool (I won’t say what) happens to the Christmas tree. After the battle Clara and the Nutcracker find the magician has whisked them away to a snowy landscape, with dancing snowflakes and a sleigh destined to carry them to the Land of Sweets. In Act 2, they stay in the Land of Sweets watching (and joining in with) lots of nice dances with famous tunes and the occasional questionable racial stereotype, before going home.
It’s a strange work really, with quite a complicated story in the first half and no story at all the second half, and it’s easy to get the staging wrong if you over-think it. Thankfully, the Royal Opera House production recognises that, as essentially a Christmas show, the more traditional and old-fashioned you make it, the more audiences are going to like it. And it really does have a genuine magic to it: the magician enters descending through a cloud of glitter, swishing his turquoise cloak around him as he sends children flying through the air and conjures up enchanted dolls which chase the characters round the stage. The house, with its soft lighting and charming details – such as the mechanical owl and the famous Christmas tree – is heartbreakingly inviting.
When the snow starts to fall, to the sound of Tchaikovsky’s off-stage choir, and when the Christmas tree has its moment (I still won’t say what happens), you’re left with goosebumps and the feeling that Christmas is finally here.
Words: Simon Heafield
Photo: Johan Persson, Royal Opera House
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