You can tell the festive season is well and truly upon us when The Nutcracker returns to a ballet company’s repertoire. At Covent Garden, the Royal Ballet’s enchanting version by Peter Wright is back for a few weeks, and makes an ideal Chanukah treat for both children and adults.
Tuesday’s first night was simultaneously screened in cinemas across the world and the company took the opportunity to show off its star dancers in all the principal roles.
Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell stole the show as Clara and the Nutcracker, with Hayward displaying her joyous elevation and precise footwork. She is young enough not to look out of place with all the children in the first act, but her dancing has real power when required.
In this version, both Hayward and Campbell are kept busy throughout the performance, as they join in all the dances in the second act divertissement instead of being passive observers as happens in some productions. This does bring a sense of continuity to the ballet, which is otherwise very much a tale of two halves, but I would prefer they kept out of the Waltz of the Snowflakes at the end of act one. This is performed so beautifully by the corps de ballet, Clara and the Nutcracker are an unnecessary addition — it would be so much better if the audience could focus solely on the meticulous dancing of the snowflakes.
Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music was brought to life by conductor Barry Wordsworth.
It may have none of the dramatic grandeur of Swan Lake, or the symphonic power of The Sleeping Beauty, but Tchaikovsky’s last great ballet score has a sugar-coated sparkle all of its own with its delightfully pretty — and oh so familiar — melodies. The celesta, used to such effect in the famous Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation, sounds particularly magical. (Tchaikovsky was adamant that he wanted to be the first to use the newly-created instrument back in 1892 — he did not want Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov to get there first!)
Gary Avis has now made the pivotal role of Herr Drosselmeyer his own. He takes command of the proceedings, performing an array of magic tricks with aplomb and showering the stage with an abundance of glitter.
In the adage of the grand pas de deux at the ballet’s climax, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae shone. McRae was especially strong in his solo, with precise petit batterie and superb timing, and Lamb was a delicate Sugar Plum Fairy.
The entire company is on excellent form, but Melissa Hamilton must be singled out for her Arabian Dance — sexy, sinuous and with a luscious back bend which goes on forever.
Ballet fans in London will soon have the chance to overdose on Sugar Plums, as there will be other Nutcrackers to savour: the English National Ballet begins its annual stint at the Coliseum next week and the Birmingham Royal Ballet has some performances scheduled at the Royal Albert Hall later this month.
The Nutcracker is at the Royal Opera House until January 10 2018. www.roh.org.uk