17 December 2007

The Nutcracker - Hungarian State Opera House - 10th December 2007

Herr Stahlbaum and his wife are giving a Christmas Party. Clara and Fritz, their children, greet the guests. Suddenly, Dr. Drosselmeyer arrives and entertains the children with his magical tricks and wind-up dolls. Drosselmeyer brings a special gift for Clara - a wooden nutcracker. In a jealous fit, Fritz breaks it. Dr. Drosselmeyer quickly repairs it. The party ends, the guests leave, and the Stahlbaums retire for the night. Clara awakens as a mouse runs through her room. The clock strikes midnight. Suddenly, the room fills with giant mice who attack Clara. Life-size toy soldiers, led by her valiant Nutcracker, come to her rescue. The King Rat attacks the Nutcracker, but Clara hits him with her shoe and the Nutcracker wins the battle. After the battle, the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. The Nutcracker Prince turns the Stahlbaum’s house into the Land of Snow. Clara and the Nutcracker Prince dance with the Snowflakes, then depart for the Kingdom of Sweets in an enchanted sleigh.

Clara and the Nutcracker Prince continue their journey across the Lemonade Sea . They are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In Clara's honor, the Sugar Plum Fairy arranges for the inhabitants of her kingdom to entertain them while they eat: chocolate, a Spanish Dance; coffee, an Arabian Dance; and tea, a Chinese Dance. Clara is also entertained by the dance of the Mirlitons, a Russian dance, and the Waltz of the Flowers. Then, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince dance a grand pas de deux. As the celebration draws to a close, Clara drifts off to sleep. She awakens in bed, as the Nutcracker Prince salutes his princess Clara.

Our second visit to the opera house to see something! We managed to get tickets for this the previous day, having thought it was completely sold out beforehand, so there had been a bit of a flap. And it rather turned out to be a case of Much Ado About Not A Lot. Presented in such a “trad” way that you could almost taste the dust on the backdrops, I felt it was heavy with the weight of decades. OK, I’ve been spoilt by the fact that I’ve seen the Birmingham Royal Ballet production of this – possibly the best Nutcracker EVER and after which any production is going to be a disappointment. (If you’ve never seen the BRB production, go buy yourself a copy of the DVD now!)

The only saving grace of this production was its scenery, much like La Boheme the previous night. The curtain rose to show the outside of the Staulbaum’s house, covered in snow and with guests arriving for the party – truly beautiful. Then the scene changed to the drawing room, where things went rapidly to pot (those not familiar with the ballet need to know that this scene contains no ballet as such, merely a series of festive dances and the first threads of the plot). This scene is important because it gives opportunity for establishing characters such as the strange Dr. Drosselmyer, the heroine Clara and her relationship with the Nutcracker. But it was all flat as a leftover gin and tonic the day after a party. Choreography was at best stodgy, at worst completely glossed over or even missing. Drosselmyer’s magic tricks were uninspired and bland and there was little sense of him being a mysterious manipulator of the senses. At the point where the party ends, the act usually continues to show Clara’s midnight adventures with the Mouse King and the start of her journey through the snow to the Kingdom of Sweets. But in this production, the first act ends with the end of the party, leaving a curiously hollow feeling and the sense that not much has really been achieved in terms of the story.

The second act was also extremely disappointing – it should be full of magic, adventure, danger and darkness as Clara and the Nutrcracker join forces against the Mouse King, and of glitter, sparkle and light as they begin their journey through the snow. Instead, it was all again very stodgily danced and with very little sense of spectacle. The growing of the Christmas Tree, which should be darkly magical and slightly threatening, was deeply disappointing – this tree was just a flat painted cloth, half of which was obviously in folds on the floor, so just raising it up on string was supposed to make it appear to “grow”. Unfortunately, it “grew” so much that the base ended up being about 2 feet off the floor. There were several duff lighting cues and, again, the choreography was distinctly unexciting – never more so than in one of the great set pieces of the ballet – the snow storm in the wood. In the BRB version (and in other more traditional versions I’ve seen) this is glittery and exciting and wonderful and danced with verve and passion, echoing the way that the music mimics the sudden blustery squalls of a real snowstorm. In this production, however, the snowflakes were danced by lumpy looking ballerinas wearing cotton wool wigs and strings of bobbles on their arms. Making them look rather like one of those knitted dolly toilet roll covers that your gran used to knit. The choreography failed to do justice to the wonderful, wonderful set of a snowy, night time forest lit by shards of icy moonlight. A few unconvincing flakes of snow fell, making one think that the snow machine had gone badly wrong. What should have been a blizzard was just a damp squiggle.

In the Act III prologue, lighting was uniformly dim and didn’t show off the cave set to anything like its best advantage. I could, however, ramble on for hours about the beauty of the main Act III set – the Kingdom of Sweets. It quite literally got a gasp of admiration from the audience and deservedly so. Again, what spoilt it was the blandness and uninspired nature of the choreography. The Russian Dance was particularly bad. The by now “grown up” Clara (no Sugar Plum Fairy in this version) seemed uneasily partnered with her Nutcracker Prince – it seemed as if they had not rehearsed together enough and made an uneasy partnership with little interaction and very little emotion. This, coupled with the two intervals instead of the usual one, plus the appalling behaviour of several young children in the audience, made this Nutcracker feel like a stodgy, oversteamed Christmas Pudding soused in brandy butter that sits heavily in your stomach and makes you feel like an overstuffed sofa. Much better to enjoy the light, tangy zest of the BRB version.

No comments: