It seems hard to believe anyone could work up a critical lather over The Nutcracker, but both the Phoenix and the Metro got down and dirty with Boston Ballet’s current version, now playing at the Opera House (where it landed, following a short sojourn at the Colonial, after the Wang/Citiwhatever booted it for the Rockettes). The Metro’s Nick Dussault sniffed that “The Grinch has . . . stolen every last ounce of holiday magic from Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker.” Over at the Phoenix, the ever-unreliable Jeffrey Gantz had much the same complaint: “Boston Ballet . . . is still trying to recapture the magic of its Nutcrackers from 10 and 20 years ago.”
Well, I see The Nutcracker every few years, and I don’t know what the hell Gantz is talking about. In general, the show has improved since the arrival of Mikko Nissinen (along with most things about the Ballet), and the loss of the Wang Center (which Gantz bemoans) isn’t much of a loss at all. The stage is slightly smaller, it’s true, and the music is amplified. But something tells me the music was amplified at the Wang (it even was at the Colonial); the orchestra certainly sounds no worse at the Opera House. And elsewhere Gantz's carping comes off as silly; he disses Tai Jimenez and Sabi Varga as "Photoshopped,” whatever that means, and sniffs that “Lia Cirio’s stiff Dewdrop was all photo-op and no flow.” Hmmm – "Photoshop" and "photo-op" in the same paragraph? It's obvious Gantz is his own editor.
But rest assured, The Nutcracker is, well, much as it ever was (though not perhaps as it was in St. Petersburg in 1892, right), with one slight difference – the dancing in the second half is now far stronger. Mikko Nissinen has streamlined the opening Christmas party (which Gantz also bemoans, but most adults would applaud), and there are a few new decisions about Clara and Drosselmeier that I guess you could call “interpretive.” Drosselmeier is now explicitly a magician, flies around on tatty batwings, and serves as Clara’s escort in the Land of Sweets (the Cavalier is now clearly the Sugar Plum Fairy’s beau). There are the usual cutesy schticks – particularly in the Mouse King battle – but one expects this (and they never get as crass as they were some twenty years ago), and at any rate, sometimes the schticks aren’t just cutesy but genuinely cute (the cheese catapult, the little black sheep).
Meanwhile, according to Gantz, “the bravura has gone” from the company’s dancing – only funny, I saw a helluva lotta bravura the night I attended. Tai Jimenez and Sabi Varga had delicious chemistry in the Arabian “Coffee," while Carlos Molina danced with more passion than I’ve ever seen him manage in his turn as Snow King to Lia Cirio’s Queen. Nelson Madrigal made a dashing Cavalier (though as usual, he tired out before the evening was quite over), Jared Redick matched Joel Prouty’s irrepressible leaps in the Russian dance, and Larissa Pomonarenko was at the top of her exquisite form as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The Nutcracker's Dewdrops do drop in - photo by Angela Sterling
One thing I did miss was the intriguing finale Nissinen devised for the show’s one year at the Colonial, where Clara awoke from her dream to clutch her nutcracker with a kind of wondering melancholy. I found this ending far more compelling than her current exit via balloon. If I were to go a bit further, I’d suggest a few more changes. The Nutcracker loses its narrative and thematic thread in most productions, because the subtext of Clara’s burgeoning sense of – ahem – romance can never be resolved. She can’t get the boy at the finish, as it were (as she's a little girl, and he's a toy) – and I think that Nissinen is fundamentally right to align the Cavalier with the Sugar Plum Fairy. But is there no way Ms. Plum, the Cavalier, and Clara could all interact at the finish? In a famous ABT production, Clara (Gelsey Kirkland) got the Sugar Plum solo all to herself – but I imagine something of a duo (or trio!) with the Sugar Plum guiding Clara through a few steps, before claiming the Cavalier again with the great pas de deux which precedes her solo here. Well, it’s a thought, anyway - and maybe someday somebody will take up the challenge of resolving the mother/daughter, girlfriend/boyfriend tensions that currently dissipate among the sweets. Till then, I guess poor Clara will have to make do with Drosselmeier in the bat cave!