Review of ‘The Nutcracker’: “The spell can’t be broken”

Tchaikovsky’s most family-beloved masterwork returns to many corners of the London scene for the Christmas season. Guillermo Názara reviews the English National Ballet’s take on this charming fairy tale featuring one of the most popular scores in classical music History, to let us know if this holiday treasure has been properly guarded.

Art is a shelter – the escape route that protects a broken soul from a shattered fate. For audiences and creators, this is the cautionary tale that, fortunately or tragically enough, has accompanied (sometimes, defined) the story of their lives. Tchaikovsky’s compositional background is no exception. In fact, it might as well be the most vivid depiction of this thespian parable on individual redemption. Confined to a life of professional success but personal deprivation, it was that self-destroying grief growing behind his triumphant public image that however led him to the realms of eternal beauty: his music.

Powerful and unrestrainable, it’s contradictorily funny how easy, nonetheless, it is to kill art. It challenges our thoughts, it intoxicates the mind. And yet, make it any rational and it will drop dead. Tchaikovky’s craftsmanship fits well into this box. To those who contemplate composition as software engineering, the apparent simplicity of his pieces may come as an insult to their (self-appointed) refined minds, as their taste for music alligns with those who believe an ashtray filled with dog poo serves as an insightful masterwork of visual art. It is insightful, though, but for other reasons…

Audiences are often looked down on by the critics – perhaps in a proud attempt to silence those who, at the end of the day, have the final say about the survival of a show. But like it or not, it’s the public’s opinion that can gives us a lesson of what works or what doesn’t. In some way (though, I may stress this, never definite), what’s right and what’s wrong. Yes, as a critic I’m aware I know better than nobody else and I’m also more stylish, handsomer and above the rest of humanity. But most importantly, I am humble. And when a piece is not only able to survive the pass of time (over a century now) but also become a tradition merging into the culture of societies it was not written for, it’s only fair to accept that there is a reason (and probably a fair one) for that to occur.

The Nutcracker is no more than a plain fairy tale featuring the common elements that are usually guaranteed to charm a listener (especially when they’re young). A similar trait happens to its music: the themes are short and often uncomplex, the architecture of its core numbers is generally two motifs pasted together through repetition and repetition, and the harmonies are basically a subtle accompaniment that don’t provide too much to the final result. And yet, I couldn’t be more precise when (by quoting Peter Shaffer on another composer you may have heard of) saying: “displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall”. That, in fact, can only happen when you don’t write with your brain, but with your soul. In other words, when you let art be art.

So many versions have been carried out since this consumated work was first performed by the Russians (a demonym some virtuous seem to have a problem with on the grounds of what one unelected man is doing). Becoming a part not only of communities but also the season’s folklore, it’s no cliché to say that the stakes are high when bringing on a new production (well, it is, but it’s also true…). The English National Ballet has, however, a reputation in the matter. I can just hope it keeps being as good as of today. After all, it’s only well deserved. With an impressive cast size and a effective (sometimes alluring) set design, this old-fashioned take on Tchaikovsky’s signature Christmas piece is, for lack of a better expression (or for possession of the best one), a gift from gifted hands.

Put together by Wayne Eagling, this production represents the company’s 72nd consecutive (yet, always different) performance of the classical piece during the holiday period. Using conventional aesthetics (most likely, the best of choices when it comes to this work), the direction triumphs in its storytelling efforts, providing the viewer with an easy understandable narrative and allowing the artists to recount a plotline rather than only dance to it. Coreographed with taste, seamless transitions and occasional spectacularity, the cast’s execution is, both on many moments and levels, nothing but highly competent, the biggest mention being Fernanda Oliveira as the Lead Principal, proving excellent and, most importantly, fully internalised technique, giving an effortless impressions at every rendition.

With such a Chritmas-themed studded offer in the theatre, there are essentially two options to go for: drench yourself in debts by going to check out everything or being selective and aiming for what you think it will be good. There’s a third one, but I want to keep this review family friendly. The ENB’s Nutcracker no doubt belongs to the second one. Played within the imposing welcoming beauty of one of London’s most fascinating venues, the whole attendance is truly an experience to remember and treasure regardless of age or acquaintance to this artform. I started this post by commenting on how art allows people to flee reality. This one does not. On the contrary, it only ennobles the enchantment of these times.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The English National Ballet’s The Nutcracker plays at London’s Colisseum until 7 January. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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