Review of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’: “Beauty is the word”

The most Christmassy theatre tradition continues to charm audiences during the holidays through its many productions across town. Guillermo Názara reviews one the company’s signature montages, playing for a limited run at London’s Royal Albert Hall – to let us know if the lavishness of the score is matched by those daring to perform it.

There comes a time in every critic’s life when you realize that you’ve already seen it all. And if it doesn’t, you just pretend to so you look smart and well-travelled. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is in no need of help, however. The piece has been put together so many times (the number of productions playing simultaneously in this city alone is just ridiculous) that one can only hope for the work not to be ruined by some desperate (and usually, embarrassing) attempt to make it look refreshing – modernising the classics is not often a good, not even original anymore, idea.

A family favourite during the Christmas season, producers should know by now what audiences expect when coming to see the dance fairy tale involving magic toys, armies of mice and lands of snow: tradition, tradition and tradition. Don’t change anything and you’ll be fine – the same conceptualization of lazy unoriginality that’s affected long-running musicals as their sets looked more and more aged: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix… until it’s too late. The Nutcracker sails on uncharted waters when it comes to remakes: you just can’t abandon the Imperial Tzarist look nor it’s old-fashioned vibes, yet if you do it as everybody else, what’s the point of going to see your version?

At the same time, the Royal Albert Hall makes it not any easier. Though some of the most spectacular gigs have taken place at this venue (its reputation precedes it for a reason), the thing is that the staging possibilities are, at the very best, limited – lacking the resources of a regular proscenium theatre in exchange, nonetheless, for the breathtaking grandeur of the concert hall. Whatever the case, and however big the challenge, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is not the first to defy such obstacles – the best example being, among others, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera celebrating its 25th anniversary in a fully immersive 3-day gig. Shows like that are rare, their tremendous costs being the strongest argument why, but pose a even rarer opportunity to take notes of how things can be done the right way. Of course, I can’t say if that’s what the company’s being doing to bring the 19th Russian extravaganza back on its feet. But if they haven’t, they’ve succeeded anyway.

Keeping it faithful to the original material (thanks so much for not deleting any numbers in order to please the morally hyper-sensitive trolls), this production is a pathway to a realm of absolute splendour – its rich visuals being just one of the many high points this montage exudes, an effort achieved by Dick Bird in conjuction with 59 Productions (projections) and Peter Teigen (lighting). At first featuring simple though well ellaborated sets, its wondrous richness unfolds in perfect synchony with the lead character’s journey into the lands of dreamlike adventure. Displaying one of the most enveloping stagings I’ve seen at this venue so far (benefiting from the place’s imposing architecture and transforming it into an aesthetic fantasy), the show is a narration of beauty at all the levels that human senses are able to process.

Within the opulence of its mesmeric universe, a highly competent (sometimes superb) cast brings the story to life through delicate yet energetic movements (credit to Sir Peter Wright CBE, Lev Ivanov and Vincent Redmon), carried out with grace, passion and high-standard technique – especially when it refers to the male ensemble. The reverie continues with more layers of intricacy, one of its most sumptuous ones provided by the elegance and artistry of its costumes (designed by John Macfarlane), their gentle flow in response to the dancers’ gestures serving as one extra (and crucial) component to the whole choreography. In addition, the attention to detail, with staggering intricay and whimsical appeal given to every single piece of wardrobe, are no doubt one of the biggest triumphers of the entire evening.

Conducted by Paul Murphy, the intepretation of some of the passages is the only flaw (though small) you may encounter at this production. Though performed with resounding competence by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, the delivery of the string sections in particular is not quite correct, as the phrasings seem to accented and played in too forceful a way in contrast to the tender free-spirited approach this piece ask for. A similar problen happens occasionally when it comes to the brass section – the melodies sometimes taken in a manner that seems a bit too aggressive.

However, none of this will prevent you from not only enjoying but being genuinely wowed by what this troupe has been able to put onstage. Making it appealing to every member of the family (including some little new tweaks to make the storytelling more understandable – go see it and you’ll realize what I’m talking about), Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker is, with all possibilities, the ultimate version to be enjoyed this Christmas. A truthful piece of evidence that creativity and originality can lie anywhere, even when it has to do with the most repeated of works – all you have to do is to know where to look for. And for that, this company’s patented their own corner.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker plays at the Royal Albert Hall until today. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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