London Coliseum, London, UK; December 11, 2013
From the sumptuous front cloth it is obvious from the outset that Wayne Eagling’s “Nutcracker” is going to dispense with garishness and novelty. This is a traditional production, firmly set in the 1870s. Peter Farmer’s gorgeous cloth lifts to reveal a Dickensian Christmas card scene, complete with skaters and a stately pile, which in turn opens to reveal the wealthy Clara’s family at play.
Drosselmeyer kicks off the action with a few magic tricks and then the party gets going in earnest. This is very much a children’s party. Advance warning is needed here: there are lots and lots and lots of icky ickle girls in icky pastel dresses cooing over their dolls. Thank heavens for Freddie and his entourage, although even he is owlish rather than a robust boy.
Drosselmeyer brings the puppets to life in a puppet show and this is where the first dramatic flaw is revealed. The ‘living’ puppets seem to block the action of the puppet theatre rather than being embodied characters, and their choreography and costumes seem at odds with the setting. It’s a sort of exhibition dance that I’m sure would have shocked a homely 1870s family audience. Why not stick to tradition and have a Harlequin and Columbine? Vivandière and the Soldier are for some reason Scottish. A nice touch was St. Nicholas dispensing presents to all and sundry.
Clara’s Nutcracker is a rather creepy, radio-controlled creature that suddenly starts moving when left at the front of the stage. He gets beheaded neatly though, enabling Drosselmeyer to oblige and set all to rights.
With the interminable (abominable?) children finally packed off to their respective homes, Clara and Freddie repair to bed and Clara starts her dream.
The snowflakes are beautifully choreographed and danced – all sharp angles and flurries – although, alas the children are now dispensed to a choir stall to screech and groan their way through the vocals. It’s painful stuff, dreadfully out of tune with children enunciating a simple “Ah” as if they are about to throw up. This was more like “Eurgh” – and each entry flatter than its predecessor. The snowflakes did well to keep their balance with poor Tchaikovsky presumably whizzing round in his grave.
The leaden footed, but aptly named, Micaela Infante stomps her way off stage to be transformed into the delightful adult Clara and now the fun really starts. This is probably the best mouse battle that I have seen, complete with mice firing a giant mousetrap at the dresser/fort. Neatly, the repaired Nutcracker has been placed inside the dresser which in the battle opens completely at the front to make a drawbridge through which the battalion of soldiers emerge. There is the usual quota of running around and poking of swords (how annoying when one’s tail gets in the way of one’s gargouillades) and the ending is unsatisfyingly inconclusive (no thrown shoe here) – but all is soon revealed. The Nutcracker is injured but, of course, Drosselmeyer fixes him and enables him to be transformed into the Nutcracker Prince.
The action closes with Clara, Drosselmeyer and the Prince sailing off in a hot air balloon but, quel horreur – the Mouse King is clinging to the landing rope. He is vanquished in one last battle enabling the Kingdom of Sweets to be seen in all its glory. The ensuing pas de trois is too long and devoid of much choreographic or dramatic interest. Again, this stumbles dramatically as Clara and the Prince disappear, leaving the audience to assume that the entertainment is on their behalf or perhaps, in the way of dreams, has just morphed.
The Act II divertissements are beautifully dressed and danced, showcasing English National Ballet’s dancers at their best. The Spanish left me wanting more – much more. Is it really that short? Ken Saruhashi is a stunning Russian lead with a jump that threatens to crack his skull on the lighting bars. The Arabian is gloriously sensual – a miniature re-enactment of Zobeide and the Golden Slave. The Chinese dance was sharp and witty. Only the lone Mirliton was odd – not sure at all how she was meant to be a reed pipe. Her costume also looked about forty years too early for the period, all Fokine and Debussy. There was a slight waiver as the Waltz of the Flowers got off to a sticky start with some difficult to co-ordinate choreography and awkward balances, but it later charmed with unusual combinations that allowed the men and women to have their own moment to shine. It was particularly good to see the corps men dancing briefly without the women in this context. Some of the diagonal lines and patterns were truly inventive and, as with the other diverts, costumes are gorgeous.
The piece de resistance was Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Both were on top form. It’s a grand pas de deux that never fails to bring a tear to the eye. It’s classicism at its finest. It was just a pity that it wasn’t integrated more closely with Clara.
Gavin Sutherland was also at his best, the orchestra providing a feather-light overture that is almost Viennese in its execution, contrasting with the richness of the grand pas. How fortunate we are to have such fine playing and conducting in which to revel.
Now that it has bedded in with the Company, this, in spite of a few glitches, is truly a “Nutcracker” to rival the old warhorse of The Royal Ballet’s Peter Wright production not so far away.
ENB’s “Nutcracker” continues at the Coliseum until January 5, with “Le Corsaire” following from January 9. Tickets: www.eno.org.