Itís been five years since the Nutcracker was last seen at Covent Garden. Seeing Peter Wrightís revised production, which has just opened, is like meeting an old friend that you havenít seen for a long time. Iíd forgotten just how charming and pretty it is. Our old friend has changed a little, but still remains delightfully warm hearted and tender. A lovely evening, with some fine performances, even if the stage machinery is still proving recalcitrant at times: it was good to see the resources of the whole company deployed, and back on good form.
The main change in the staging is that Wright has chosen to cast Clara and the Nutcracker with adult dancers from the company, as in his production for BRB, rather than with children. Both get more challenging opportunities to dance as a result: they join in some of the national dances in Act 2 rather than just watching, and have an attractive pas de deux before heading off to the land of snow. There are still plenty of children in evidence on stage in Act 1, looking as if they are genuinely enjoying the party - but still very well disciplined in their dances. Clara, danced by Marta Barahona, is only a couple of inches taller than the little girls and blends in well with them. Sheís a soloist who hasnít been featured in many leading roles so far, but she managed to be both confident on stage and yet believably adolescent.
Her Nutcracker is Jonathan Howells, who impressed much earlier this year as Alain in File Mal Gardee. He danced very cleanly on his own: at first when dancing with Barahona, the two didnít look quite comfortable as partners, but they blossomed more in the second act. Howells put across the mime of his adventures in Act 2 more clearly than Iíd seen it done before, and finished it with an exuberant flourish. He looked particularly good joining in the Russian dance. He and Barahona were a popular couple.
One of the curiosities of the casting information given out by the ROH is that for Nutcracker, you only get the names of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her partner, who appear for just ten minutes at the end of the ballet. Itís odd that they donít give out casting details for Drosselmeyer, when the role carries such responsibility within the production - after all, wouldnít potential audiences like to know when Dowell is appearing ? This is the first time he has appeared in the role. Dowell usual strong stage presence was absent at times - he looked occasionally distracted, and for this it is easy to sympathise. Despite huge efforts backstage, total control over the machinery does not yet seem to have been achieved, and there were a number of glitches -
trapdoors which didnít look as if they were ever going to close, a tree which didnít grow until rather too late in the proceedings, bits of scenery which got stuck, and loud hammering noises coming from backstage. Drosselmeyerís magic tricks need to be slightly more slick. However, Dowell is still capable of producing the most telling gestures. When kissed by Clara, delighted with her toy, his reaction was exquisite, flinching back for a second, and then wistfully touching his cheek. It spoke volumes more about his loneliness than his initial scene.
Although the transformation scene hadnít proceeded smoothly, the dance of the snowflakes looked dreamily lovely, and it was good to see the corps given a chance to shine. The dances of the second act also offered a number of opportunities. The Arabian dance was popular as ever, and Yanowsky looked extremely elegant. However, the floor surface for the second act produced a striking amount of very squeaky noises: some dancers, for example in the Chinese dance, looked rather uncomfortable with it.
Another revision introduced by Wright in this production is a new solo for the Rose Fairy (Christina McDermott). It is a pity that the revisions are not explained in the Programme, (the price has now gone up to four pounds a time) most of which is text reproduced from the 1994 version, but which omits the detail the programme used to carry about which dances were by Wright and which were Ivanov / Sergeyev. McDermott looked a little tentative at first, but her confidence seamed to build and she finished well.
And then of course, there was Darcey. Iím trying to avoid continually using the term radiant when describing her, but she does make it difficult. She was serene and utterly unperturbed by any distractions of scenery problems behind her, and made the steps looks as easy and obvious as a childís game. Roberto Bolle, her partner, had no trouble with any of the lifts, and she flew into his arms for the final pose with no apparent effort. Bolle himself was warmly welcomed, but it was a rather frustratingly brief glimpse of him.
Despite the star turns, the evening did seem very much an ensemble performance which illustrated the strength of the company, much more so than the opening International Choreography programme. It really did seem a festive occasion and cause for celebration. The shower of flowers at the close seemed really heartfelt - isnít it good to have them back ? The only bad news is that itís sold out already.