Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Nutcracker re-booted, and re-born

Jeffrey Cirio gives his cadets their marching orders before the Ballet's spectacular new Christmas tree.
The Boston Ballet production of The Nutcracker has been oft been voted America's favorite - so you could argue that tinkering with it is a risk - and a wholesale re-boot, perhaps pure folly.

Yet the re-invention that premiered last weekend at the Opera House proved the nay-sayers wrong. Robert Perdziola’s dazzling sets and (literally) sparkling costumes bring a welcome sophistication to this beloved warhorse, and artistic director Mikko Nissinen has made sure the dancing is at as high a level as ever.  On opening night, the new stage configurations meant that some bits of blocking (particularly the opening moments) were vague - and a few funny tricks have gone missing (there's no tiny stretcher for wounded mice, alas - although something tells me this much-loved bit of business will come back). But there are moments of awe and wonder here that more than compensate for these occasional gaps.  It has been a long time since I've heard gasps from the adults at a Christmas show, but at Perdziola's best and grandest gambits, that's exactly what you heard from even grizzled ballet veterans.  Which may be why this Nutcracker felt like a big new Christmas gift to the city.

Designer Perdziola's basic impulse has been to pull this storybook ballet a little bit closer to the storybook; the spirit of children's illustration hovers over his intricately painted sets, which are heavy on panels that open like the leaves of an album.  His costumes, meanwhile, lean away from the heavily structured Victorian frou-frou of the last version toward the sleeker, draped look of the Empire period - which is closer to the timing of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story; in essence, we feel we're looking at what might have been illustrations for it the year it was published (1816).  And for good measure Perdziola has thrillingly re-imagined a few "tent-pole" special effects: this production's Christmas tree, for instance, opened into an awesome, twinkling bower that covered the entire stage, and the Snow King and his Queen no longer caper through evergreens, but instead pirouette through a pristine grove of Russian birches.

And if the venerable version that held the Ballet's stage for over two decades sometimes felt like a grab-bag of shifting stances, tricks, and even gimmicks, this one attempts a little more internal incoherence.  There's more real dancing for Clara, and what's more, it's dancing with a psychological dimension - she's not a little girl this time around, but clearly on the edge of adolescence (though not over it - her Christmas gift is a pair of pointe shoes, so she's about 12). Drosselmeier - and that romantic factotum, the Nutcracker Prince (at left) - play a subtler role in her fantasy life than usual, but the production reminds us that it is a fantasy life; in the poignant coda to this version, Clara awakens from the Kingdom of Sweets back in Kansas - or at least her parlor at home.

On opening night, our Clara was the charming young Chelsea Perry, who proved as gifted an actress as she is a dancer, and who was clearly completely "over" her tantrum-prone brother, Fritz (the feisty young Santiago Paniagua).  Many of the other characters in the familiar yarn were played by familiar faces - we were again lucky enough to see Isaac Akiba's amazing leaps in the Russian dance, and Joseph Gatti and Adiarys Almeida once more charmed in the Chinese dance.  In other cases, however, familiar roles weren't quite so familiar anymore; the dashing Sabi Varga, now the Ballet's most reliable romantic lead, was always compelling, but seemed to still be working through the new, slightly-spookier conception of Drosselmeier. Meanwhile the brilliant Kathleen Breen Combes had finally left the Arabian Dance behind; this year she dazzled as the Snow Queen (next to the electric Paulo Arrais as her King) in what was probably the most ravishingly synchronous duet of the night.

Elsewhere new faces took over, with solid if not stunning results - Brittany Summer impressed in the Arabian (although she was perhaps more aquiline than actually sinuous), and rising star Irlan Silva made a delicately alienated Harlequin (although he didn't quite nail his double tours).  The highlights of the Kingdom of Sweets divertissements were definitely the dazzling Lia Cirio and her waltzing flowers (unfortunately there was a slip in the Spanish dance, which seemed to have been tweaked a bit oddly, perhaps the one misstep in Nissinen's choreography).  And Misa Kuranaga was, of course, everything she should be as the Sugar Plum Fairy - in an inspired pairing with the ever-dreamy Jeffrey Cirio, who is the first Nutcracker Prince I think I've seen who brought truly romantic feeling to their gorgeous pas de deux.  For Cirio's Prince, this all seemed to be a delightful first date - and so it was for us, too.

Indeed, no higher compliment can be paid to this production, I think, than this: for the first time in I don't know how many years (and how many performances) I felt the stirrings of surprise and wonder again as I watched The Nutcracker. Particularly when the giant Christmas tree spread its mantle of glittering, mysterious promise over the stage, I felt that delicious seasonal thrill I perhaps haven't experienced since I was a child. Suddenly The Nutcracker was new again - and so was the magic of Christmas Eve.

The magic of Christmas in The Nutcracker.  Photos: Gene Schiavone.


  1. This is a delightful review that has inspired me to make an effort to see The Nutcracker again after a lapse of several years.