Boston Ballet in "The Nutcracker" Photo © Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Boston Opera House, Boston, MA; December 7, 2013

Carla DeFord

Last year Boston Ballet introduced a completely redesigned production of “The Nutcracker,” with sets and costumes designed by Robert Perdziola.  In contrast to the old production, the new one struck me as rather two-dimensional, its opening scrim being a case in point.  Despite the trompe l’oeil drapery at the top, it is flat except for a recessed central panel, and when that panel rises, it reveals Drosselmeier’s workshop high above the stage.  A crowd of children watches him from below, and the effect recalls a puppet theatre.  The audience also has to look up at the toy maker, and the theatre-within-a-theatre conceit distances us from the action.

The opening scrim of the old production showed a night-time landscape in perspective with two figures on a hill overlooking houses below.  Surveying that landscape, one was drawn into it, and when it disappeared we found ourselves first in a three-dimensional toy workshop and then in a Victorian street scene, complete with buildings lit from within and people bustling about.  Although the new production retains the chestnut vendor with his lighted brazier, there is no street scene at all.  Except for a couple of flats suggesting a building, the performers are completely alone on the stage until the set changes to the Silberhaus parlor.

Once in the parlor, the contrast continues.  Gone are the huge windows of the old set.  Now the walls, though gorgeously painted, have no depth.  Only the lighted Christmas tree in its alcove is three dimensional.  Perhaps these changes reflect the digital age we live in, which functions in two dimensions, and also a lessened willingness to suspend one’s disbelief.

Boston Ballet in "The Nutcracker" Photo © Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Gene Schiavone

The counterpoint to all this is the lighting, designed by Les Dickert.  The painted sets, especially the palace walls in the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom, are exquisite, but it’s the lighting that brings the production to life.  For example, the old act II sets featured chandeliers painted on a backdrop, which could only be described as an affront to one’s credulity.  All that is gone: the production now has real crystal chandeliers, not only onstage but in the auditorium.  Of course, their (electric) candles add depth to the set, but so do their crystals, which catch and reflect ambient light.  The effect is gorgeous.

Some of the costumes are also part of the lighting design, especially that of Dew Drop, which is stark white and so encrusted with rhinestones that at first glance the ballerina seems to be giving off sparks.  Sugar Plum’s tutu is slightly more subdued, probably because it’s pink, but the crystal headpieces of both ballerinas take their cue from the chandeliers and become emitters of light.

The blockbuster lighting effect is that of the glittering Christmas tree, which we see at first in the Silberhaus parlor.  After the party guests go home, Clara is asleep on a couch in the parlor when the mice enter.  (At this point the shadows of the mice are projected on the backdrop, making the rodents look more dynamic and sinister.)  Suddenly the first tree breaks open, and a second gigantic tree, decorated with hundreds of ornaments and thousands of lights rises up between its halves.  We never see the top of this tree, only the central part of it, which moves as it grows.  It’s a little disappointing that it’s painted on a flat backdrop, but the lights are dazzling, and they change color several times to underscore the action onstage.

The only real mistake in the set design is the gray cloud that transports Clara to the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom.  It looks like something out of an Edward Gorey cartoon, complete with knotted ropes that have vaguely executional overtones, as if they could have been used on a gallows.  I say bring back the hot-air balloon tout de suite.

Ashley Ellis in "The Nutcracker" Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Ashley Ellis in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

It’s the dancing that makes a performance, however, and this evening belonged to newly promoted principal Ashley Ellis as Sugar Plum.  If she was memorable as Nikiya in “La Bayadere” last October, she was absolutely spectacular in this role.  The woman eats up space, and her every move is suffused with grandeur.  The positions she attained in the lifts were sheer perfection (thank you Bradley Schlagheck as Nutcracker Prince for getting her up there securely), with gestures that communicated infinite serenity and graciousness.

Maybe it was those lifts that suggested it, but at some point she seemed to enter a state of transcendence in which she moved through and existed in an eternal present.  I found myself wishing that her grand pas de deux would never end, and she almost convinced me she could make it happen.  In that performance, I felt time stop and mortality recede.

New arrival Petra Conti, who comes to Boston from La Scala, was Snow Queen, and in comparison to Ellis, her performance barely registered.  The dancing was pretty, but carried no weight.  One hopes that with help from the company ballet masters, she will be able to grow into the roles she will be undertaking as a principal.

Other dancers who caught my attention include Anaïs Chalendard, who appeared in the Arabian variation.  Here, as in her Gamzatti in “La Bayadere,” the ferocity of her attack was impressive.  Lawrence Rines as the grandfather was both funny and charming, and Isaac Akiba as lead Russian displayed great airborne splits.  Shelby Elsbree as the “Ballerina Doll” had some great automaton moves, and Patrick Yocum gets the Mr.Versatility award.  He appeared as both the dancing bear and Mother Ginger, and was engaging in both roles.  The choreography for Fritz and the party boys has been much improved, and all the children more than rose to the occasion, adding vitality to the performance.

Dawn Atkins, Lauren Herfindahl and Ekaterine Chubinidze in "The Nutcracker" Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Dawn Atkins, Lauren Herfindahl and Ekaterine Chubinidze in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

With so many elements of the new production to take in, I found it difficult to focus solely on the music.  Having been to a Boston Ballet Orchestra rehearsal, however, I know that Robert Marlatt deserves recognition for his beautiful performance of the horn solo at the beginning of the Snow Queen and King scene (a.k.a. “A Pine Forest”).  He, along with the strings and percussion, created one of the most ecstatic sequences in all of Tchaikovsky.  Of course, “The Nutcracker” is famous for featuring the celeste, and I particularly enjoyed hearing its interplay with the harp.  I hadn’t realized how close in sonority they are.

A performance as profoundly moving as Ellis’s Sugar Plum can only be achieved in collaboration with great musicians.  Thank you Maestro McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra for making it possible.