21 December 2010

The Nutcracker - ENB at the London Coliseum - Wednesday 15th December 2010

Guests arrive at the Stahlbaum house for a Christmas Eve party.  Clara's uncle, Herr Drosslemeyer, a magician, is among the guests.  He introduces Clara to his nephew and gives her a nutcracker doll, which is broken by Freddie, Clara's brother.  It is magically mended.  Drosselmeyer presents a magical puppet show.  The guests leave after the party and Clara is sent to bed. 

Waking at midnight, Clara hears noises downstairs and goes to investigate.  Magically, the Christmas tree grows larger and larger, and Clara is attacked by mice. She is rescued by the Nutcracker doll, commanding a regiment of Freddie's toy soldiers.  The Nutcracker is injured and the soldiers are captured by the mice.  Clara and the Nutcracker escape into the snow, followed by the King of the Mice, where they are hidden by a snowstorm.  A hot-air balloon, containing Drosselmeyer, lands in the forest and flies them to safety in the Kingdom of the Sweets.  Unfortunately they fail to realise that the King of the Mice is hanging from the bottom of the balloon's basket.

Landing in the Kingdom of the Sweets.  Drosslemeyer and the Nutcracker finally manage to defeat the King of the Mice.  Clara is entertained by dances given by the Sweets.  She is transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy, and dances with the Nutcracker, who takes on the appearance of Drosselmeyer's nephew.

Waking on Christmas Day, Clara wonders if it has all been a dream.  Looking out of the door, she sees the hot air balloon flying past....

Clara – Fernanda Oliveira
Nutcracker Prince – Fabian Reimar
Drosselmeyer – Juan Rodriguez
His Nephew – James Forbat
Mouse King – Yat-Sen Chang
Creative Team:
Music: Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Wayne Eagling
Design – Peter Farmer
Lighting – David Richardson
Its not Christmas without The Nutcracker. Fortunately, English National Ballet have finally jettisoned the pile of crap they have been foisting on the public for the last however-many years (I reviewed it last year and a complete load of crud it was too). Their new production is far more traditional and far better, making the company look much better. Unfortunately, the choreography is still way below par (the big pas de deux in Act II is a complete lift from the Birmingham Royal Ballet production that I witter on about ad nauseum to anyone who will listen and Act II is still as dreary and uninspiring as it always is - the story always grinds to a complete halt and becomes a series of interminable divertissments; its time someone had the courage to jettison these at least partially and do a re-write). Even so, there were several moments when principals couldn’t cope very well with what they were given and simply looked uncomfortable.
It was, for me, a game of two halves (with kick-off enlivened by a slight spat with a woman in the row in front who had draped her fur coat over the back of her seat and who was clearly concerned that I was going to steal it. I countered her fussings and re-organisings with “Don’t worry madam, I’m not going to spit on your furs” (a change from my usual anti-fur comment of “Excuse me, there seems to be blood dripping from your coat, Madam”). “Oh”, she replied, managing to put about 8 vowels in the monosyllable, “it’s railly nylon!” (as if someone in a £65 seat is going to be wearing a nylon coat over her Yves St. Laurent suit. Yes, and I’m Little Noddy, madam.) Anyway, I digress.
Visually, Act 1 is really, really lovely visually. There are people skating on the frozen pond in front of the Stalhbaum’s house, and the sets and costumes are in lovely muted and “antique” browns, creams, dull pinks and creams with the occasional mint green or pale blue dress or ribbon setting everything off nicely. The whole party scene is set behind a gauze, giving a misty and slightly hazy look, as if lit by candlelight (although the Christmas tree is bedecked with red, yellow and green fairy lights, which is completely wrong for the mid to late 19th century). Uncle Drosselmeyer’s magic tricks are somewhat laboured however, and there’s a completely irrelevant puppet-show taking the place of the traditional harlequin and clown automata. The confusion is heightened when people dressed as characters from the puppet show start a long, complicated and unexplained section of dance which adds nothing to the story so far (reading the pro reviews at a later date, I find that the people are Clara's elder sister and her three suitors). The rest of the party dancing, however, is lovely to watch, and I was relieved that the faintly embarrassing “Grandma and Grandpa” dance is here changed to a pas-de-quatre for the whole Stalhbaum family, which was a lot more dignified. The final sections of Act 1 were, in themselves, a game of two halves. The part in which the Christmas tree grows huge (or Clara shrinks) was a real disappointment – nothing in the room changed apart from the Grandfather clock (which I think grew bigger at the incorrect moment) and the tree itself was simply pulled up into the flies to make it look as if it had grown (at least one of the pro reviewers was as disappointed with this bit as I was). The anachronistic fairy lights didn’t extend the entire length of the bigger tree and it was pulled up too far so you could see it was simply a bit of painted cloth. The mice, however, were wonderful – really scary – with eyes blazing from skeletal heads and dressed in tattered Jacobean ruffs, doublet and hose. I loved the idea of using a huge mousetrap to fire bits of cheese at the toy soldiers, although they only did this once and it seemed a bit wasted not to make more use of the idea. This is also the first production I’ve seen where the mice actually win – the toy soldiers are taken off in a cage and Clara and the injured Nutcracker escape by running out of the house into the snow, which makes for a completely logical change to the woods of the next scene. The snowstorm scene is, for me, the defining scene of Nutcracker – fail here and you lose me entirely, regardless of how wonderful the rest of the production may be. In this production, this scene is really rather workaday – not awful, but then not really anything very special. At least, however, the snowflakes didn’t jump out of the freezer as in ENB’s old production! That production suffered mightily at this point by completely failing to include the traditional off-stage children’s chorus (I thought I had gone deaf) so it was a relief to have it back. However, regardless of the fact that the Coliseum is an opera house, it was sung by the children from the company, and was at times painfully out of tune – less “aaaah, ahhhh, aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh” than “aaah augggh #awwwwuggggggghhhh#”. Perhaps they were trying to scare the mice away? I said to Him Indoors afterwards that they should have had a chorus of opera students, but this was dismissed out of hand with “There are no opera students that young”. “Well then, St. Martin’s in the Fields is just round the corner and ENB should have rented their choristers to do the job properly rather than have that load of caterwauling” I replied. This useful, practical and entirely appropriate suggestion was ignored, sad to say.
All the good ideas of Act I were completely thrown away in Act 2. What looked like it might be an interesting continuation of the story (the Nutcracker and Clara were followed to the Kingdom of Sweets by the Mouse King) went completely for nothing and fizzled out within 5 minutes, the dark green set was incredibly dreary  and desperately under-lit (although enlivened by part of the Stahlbaum’s parlour dropping in unexpectedly for about 18 bars and then disappearing just as rapidly as the stagehand responsible realised his mistake) and there was no Sugar Plum Fairy – simply Clara in a different costume. Boooooo! Cheeeeeap! The divertissments* were, as usual, uninspiring, boring or, occasionally, completely bewildering. There now follows a short intermission in order to explain the asterisk in the last sentence.
* Each dance in what is termed “The Nutcracker Suite” represents an expensive and festive foodstuff that Clara might be expected to find in her Christmas stocking. The Spanish Dance represents oranges, which in the 19th century and well into the early 20th century (i.e. before year-round-everything in supermarkets) were only seen in northern Europe as a Christmas treat, The Arabian Dance is coffee, the Chinese Dance is Tea. The Dance of the Myrlitons (commonly known to those of a certain age as “Everyone’s a fruit and nut-case”) is candy-cane flutes, the Russian Dance is “trepak” which is a kind of toffee-fudge, the Waltz of the Flowers is candied flower petals. The Kingdom of Sweets is, appropriately, ruled by the Sugar-Plum Fairy; remember the line from “The Night Before Christmas” when the children were sleeping “and visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”? Well, plums were another traditional 19th century festive treat, which is why what we call Christmas Pudding is called Plum Pudding by Dickens and others. Who said that this blog wasn’t educational? And now back to your usual programme.
“Coffee” seemed to be a lecture on the evils of the slave trade as instead of generic Arabian Nights stuff, Clara rescued two slaves carrying sacks (possibly of coffee) from a bloke in baggy pants and his four harem girls. We had no candy canes but got the reappearance of the people who danced in front of the puppet show in Act 1, three of whom wore the same costumes as they had the first time round and one of whom who had changed her ballgown for something slightly skimpier. Their presence seemed completely unexplained until a huge net sprang out of the wings and flopped over the woman. This confirmed that she was, in fact, being a butterfly, but failed to explain why she was being a butterfly, why the three men from Act 1 were dancing with her or indeed exactly what the entire point of this bit was in any way. The Waltz of the Flowers looked rather under-rehearsed and thin – it should have been an “all hands on deck” moment but ENB’s very small corps looked completely marooned on the chilly expanses of the ENO house. Fernanda Oliviera did an OK job as Clara but when she took on the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy her shortcomings were cruelly exposed. But still, the evening is a darned sight better entertainment than the old production, for which I suppose I should be grateful
The journey home was enlivened by reading an incredibly pompous interview with the designer in the programme.
“When I first did Giselle, she was always in blue and I had great fights about it, but it was only the influence of Walt Disney. Now I notice that not all Giselle’s are in blue, so maybe I made some poor attempt to influence them”.
Well, Mr. Farmer, let me correct you there. Giselle traditionally wears a blue dress in the ballet of the same name, simply because the costume designer of the first ever production (1851)was madly in love with the dancer who created the role of Giselle; she apparently had stunning blue eyes and the costume was made to enhance these. The first Disney heroine to wear blue was Cinderella, which was made in 1950, so this film had no influence on the blue costume traditionally worn by Giselle in the ballet. Many modern Giselle’s still wear blue. Some don’t – and I doubt that you’ve had any influence on this at all.

What the critics thought:
(a distinctly mixed bag of reviews, most of which comment on the dreadful lighting design):



An incredibly pompous interview with the designer!

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