Christmas must be nearing when that traditional fare of sparkle, excitement and the surging score of The Nutcracker bursts in full flood onto the world's ballet stages. Originally created in 1891 by Marius Petipa for the Mariinsky Theatre, the ballet has become the annual bread-winner for most companies (albeit in various versions), guaranteeing full houses and happy customers. No other ballet brings such heart-warming satisfaction to both seasoned balletomane and newcomer. The Royal Ballet's luxurious production, choreographed by Sir Peter Wright in 1984, is no exception. It is pure visual delight and offers two hours of contented escapism from one's normal routine. No fewer than 20 performances are on offer during the festive period, and on Monday night, the Royal Opera House buzzed with anticipation as its audience of all ages finally settled. Conductor Koen Kessels picked up his baton and the orchestra started the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky's magnum opus. Then the magic began.
The red plush curtains draw back to reveal Herr Drosselmeyer putting the finishing touches to an angel doll which he gives his assistant, here danced by Valentino Zucchetti with fine high leaps and bounds, to deliver to the Stahlbaum house. Before Drosselmeyer sets off, there is a nostalgic moment as he looks at a portrait of his nephew, transformed into a Nutcracker doll by the Queen of the Mice, and who only can be released from the spell by overcoming the Mouse King and finding the love of a young girl. Thus the plot is shaped. In a 19th-century picturesque setting, friends and family gather to watch the traditional lighting of the tree as children dance for the adults and play with their Christmas toys. When the mysterious Drosselmeyer arrives in his swirling turquoise cloak, he entertains them with clever conjuring tricks, throwing sparkle in the air and brings dolls alive to dance for them. Throughout the ballet, he is like a maestro raising his arms in grand gestures as he conducts the unfolding events of the story, and Christopher Saunders never once let us feel that he was anything but a real magician. It is he who gives young Clara the gift of the Nutcracker doll and then takes her on the journey of discovery.
The well-drilled young students from The Royal Ballet School took on their roles with great solemnity, making sure of straight lines, pointed toes, while showing their love of dancing on stage. Clara, danced by Emma Maguire, was a pretty teenager beloved by the family and enjoying the attentions of her dance partner, played by the boyish Tristan Dyer. She danced with gentle yet jubilant accuracy throughout the ballet, exuding grace and charm and a real sense of excitement.
There are many iconic moments in this ballet but the greatest is the anticipation of the growing Christmas tree. Tchaikovsky's score begins quietly and surges forth from the orchestra pit as the tree pushes ever upwards. In the following battle scene, the children shone again as the Mice and Toy Soldiers and at its height, the sound of Clara's shoe hitting the head of the Mouse King received a good laugh. And suddenly there he was, the Nutcracker doll transformed into his handsome true self – blond haired, with a beaming face, and he and Clara dance blissfully together demonstrating their young blossoming love. In his bright red military jacket, Alexander Campbell showed an easy, smooth style, jumping well and performing the many jetés around the stage with speed and elegance. They find themselves in the Land of the Snow and join the frothy, sparkling Snowflakes in their crisp and even patterns as the snow gently falls – always a "wow" factor, especially when the singers from the London Oratory Junior Choir start up.
In Act II, the magical sleigh sweeps the Nutcracker and Clara away to the Kingdom of the Sweets where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince greet them and are shown, in an excellent, clear mime, the story of the Nutcracker's enslavement and his freedom, thanks to Clara. Honoured, the two young people are invited to watch divertissements, including the Rose Fairy, performed with daintiness by Yuhui Choe, before the two leading dancers performed one of the most famous grand pas of the ballet world's repertoire. But on Monday evening, the audience was in for a surprise.
Principal ballerina Marianela Núñez was her radiant self, her smile could light a thousand Christmas trees, and her technique is pure filigree and refinement – and how she can balance! So it was something of a disappointment to find her Prince, Thiago Soares, solemn faced and somewhat stiff in mannerisms. He managed his solo all right though without any special thrill, which was followed by Núñez's delicate Sugar Plum Fairy solo. Then, lo and behold, the Prince's next solo was performed by one of the Rose Fairy's escorts, a smiling Dawid Trzensimiech (fortunately also dressed in white). He ably proceeded to partner Núñez for the rest of the pas de deux and also took the curtain calls with her. Sadly it looks as though Soares was suddenly taken ill in the wings and it was one of those "You're on" moments for Dawid, as there was no visible gap to the momentum. In fact, some of the audience, including my neighbour, didn't spot the difference. So it was thanks to Dawid that the evening ran smoothly and the magic never stopped. The only disappointment was to find that it wasn't snowing outside on the walk back to the station.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD