Not another Nutcracker, I thought on the way to the Opera House. Haven’t we had our fill of Sugar Plums? I took my seat, the Grinch of Covent Garden, wondering if we couldn’t have The Winter’s Tale for a change. The lights went down, the orchestra assembled and within six bars of Tchaikovsky’s irresistibly sparkling score I was sinking into my seat as into a bath of hot Glühwein and contentedly sighing: bring on the dancing snowflakes…
Peter Wright’s production, with sets and costumes by Julia Trevelyan Oman, remains a midwinter night’s dream of Lebkuchen cosiness: snow-capped gables, Biedermeier comfort, goffered mob caps and Fezziwig frock coats, as pretty as an album of découpage. Anna Rose O’Sullivan is Clara. She is a little chilly when we first meet her in the Stahlbaums’ drawing room, lost in the crowd of children from the Royal Ballet School, a delicate dancer, but drifting and passive. Shy is one thing, but we need to feel something of a girl’s glee at a party and her first dance with a young partner (Luca Acri). Francesca Hayward has set the bar for this part adorably high.
O’Sullivan warms, though, in the Land of the Snow and in the arms of Marcelino Sambé as Hans-Peter who is magically transformed into the Nutcracker. Acri is gallant enough, but Sambé in his red jacket is so handsome, so honourable, so heroic as he rises from his battle with the Mouse King (a menacing Nicol Edmonds, in tights and tail) that Clara would have to be made of ice not to swoon. Sambé dances here with winning charisma, all smiles, power and command. His elaborate mime routine — telling his adventures, playing the parts of soldiers and mice — is a miniature masterclass. He joins the Russian dancers — Paul Kay and David Yudes — in the second act in a bravura display of high-kicking, air-splitting, stage-surfing confidence. Having complained before about the Royal Ballet’s leading-man problem, I might have to eat my Cossack hat.
Benjamin Ella and Elizabeth Harrod make a delightful Harlequin and Columbine, patchwork dolls brought to life by Herr Drosselmeyer’s (Gary Avis) tricks and tinsel. Harrod, with her precise, woodpecker pointe work, is particularly sweet. Paul Kay and Meaghan Grace Hinkis bring vigour and wit to the animated soldier and his sweetheart Vivandière. A ten-gun salute to the boys of the Royal Ballet School who delight as the tin soldiers marching from their fort to fight the dastard German mice. Is the children’s comedy in the party scene a little cloying? Can you have too much moppetry? Nope. The small boy in the row behind me laughed fit to burst and had to be shushed by his mother. The owl clock and the rising Christmas tree are enduringly impressive feats of stagecraft.
And so to the Land of Sweets with its pavilions and gilded palisades, a Fragonard fête galante with added glitter. O’Sullivan blooms in the second act, taking her place in the Waltz of the Flowers and clacking castanets with the Spanish dancers. After two thumping crash landings, Luca Acri and Leo Dixon find their feet as the Chinese dancers. In the Arabian dance, Melissa Hamilton is slinky, but not the full Salome. Waltzing flowers Claire Calvert, Itziar Mendizabal, Romany Pajdak and Beatriz Stix-Brunell make a lovely bouquet and Fumi Kaneko a gently graceful Rose Fairy.
In Marianela Nunez we are treated to the plummest of Sugar Plum Fairies. She is expansive, warm, serene, but never saccharine. Vadim Muntagirov is her Prince, distinguished by fleetness and elegance of line. As partners they dance with a captivating courtesy: ‘No, you must shine.’ ‘No, you.’ Matthew Parris wrote a few weeks ago in these pages of the strange quality of feeling ‘moved’. Watching Nunez and Muntagirov on opening night I had shivers down my spine and tears in my eyes. Superstar stuff. The dizzyingly difficult grand pas de deux is done with effortless pride and panache. There is a childish wonder in watching them, like waking up on Christmas morning to find the windowsill white with snow.