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'The Nutcracker'

Birmingham Royal Ballet

by David Mead

November 29, 2009 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham

You might be able to buy your own nutcracker doll in Birmingham’s huge German-style Christmas market, but to see one come to life you have to head off to the Hippodrome. With Birmingham Royal Ballet about to start celebrating the 20th anniversary of their relocation, it’s good to see that Sir Peter Wright’s moving-in gift to the city and the company, his quite superb “Nutcracker”, is still as magical as it was all those Christmases ago.

This is a warm and inviting “Nutcracker”. The red interior décor of the Stahlbaum’s house soon made everyone forget the cold, damp December weather outside. It is a feast for the eyes and once again filled the Hippodrome Theatre with festive cheer. The audience mood was perfectly illustrated about ten seconds into the Act I overture when a very young voice in the stalls declared loudly, “It’s exciting isn’t it?”  Everyone just laughed. And this was before the curtain had even risen, let alone before the huge growing Christmas tree, giant rats, toy soldiers come to life and flying swan.

The story is enchanting as it is, but even more so when you have such a delightful Clara as Momoko Hirata. Wide-eyed at the events unfolding round her, she looked like she was thoroughly enjoying every moment. Her best moment came in the deeply romantic pas de deux that follows the transformation scene. With Joseph Caley looking every inch like the Prince of her dreams, it seemed she was really in love. They made every step, catch and lift look so easy; Hirata quick and light, Caley rock solid.

At the heart of Wright’s ballet is Drosselmeyer, an iceberg of a character. He is definitely master of ceremonies, orchestrating Clara’s whole dream, her meeting with her Prince and trip to the Kingdom of the South/Sweets. Although Rory Mackay’s interpretation was not as mysterious as some, there was still the sense that we only see a small part of who he really is, and that beneath the surface lurks something or someone altogether darker, even menacing.

Everyone played their part. Wolfgang Stollwitzer almost stole the family party scene with his supremely elegant father, while David Morse was once again excellent as the grandfather, always with a twinkle in his eye. Morse, surely the best character artist around, was playing this role when the production first appeared. The rats, who remind me more of Caribbean pirates than vermin, get better each year. In Act II, the highlight of the divertissements was the Arabian dance featuring Andrea Tredinnick, Yasuo Atsuji, Robert Gravenor and Aaron Robison.

The only slight let down came with the grand pas de deux. Ambra Vallo looked every inch the Sugar Plum Fairy, but her gargoulliardes were rather less than noteworthy, and some of the partnering with didn’t quite sparkle as it should. The couple made the lifts, and especially the difficult shoulder lifts, look like hard work indeed.

A few days later, Lei Zhao gave a very different interpretation of Clara, and one that sits a little better with the darker side of the ballet. As good as Hirata was, Zhao appeared much more relaxed. All her reactions seemed perfectly natural. When the transformation scene began, she appeared genuinely scared and incredibly vulnerable, which is just as it should be. Her relief at the end of the battle and finding her prince, the excellent Tom Rogers, still alive, led to a pas de deux that simply oozed emotion. For me this is the best moment of the ballet.

Making her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy here was Delia Matthews. Taking a leading role for the first time, it was hardly surprising that she looked rather nervous. But it helps having a such an excellent partner as Rogers and she did manage to relax a little. Once again, the less said about the gargouilliardes the better, but her series of fouettés were excellent indeed.

But let’s put any minor gripes aside. This is Christmas ballet just as it should be with plenty of fun and magic for the kids, including the grown-up ones, and enough darker moments for those who need them. I defy anyone to tire of this production, but just in case, make the most of this year’s performances, for in 2010 David Bintley will present a new Cinderella using the well-know Prokofiev score, and designs by John Macfarlane.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was as glorious as ever, conducted on both occasions by Barry Wordsworth.

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