As a huge fan since the age of six, 'The Nutcracker' does have some nostalgic value but still remains one of the greatest and most important ballets ever written with a story that still enchants and some of Tchaikovsky's finest music.
This Berlin performance is how not to do 'The Nutcracker', being devoid of joy, charm and magic and replaced by weirdness, ugliness and convolution. Just for the record, doing something different doesn't in any way automatically make it bad, sometimes it's interesting and refreshing. A couple of productions of 'The Nutcracker' have worked when different, there is a re-worked 'Nutcracker' available with Matthew Golding and while there is one dance (the "Arabian dance") that doesn't work and what is done with the Mouse King not gelling with the rest of the performance, it still retained the heart, charm and magic of the ballet. Matthew Bourne's production was also hugely enjoyable.
However, there are a few instances where 'The Nutcracker' done differently has not worked. This Berlin performance is one of those. It is a little better than the self-indulgent and overblown Maurice Bejart and ugly and incoherent 2008 Mariinsky productions, but is still one of the weaker performances of the ballet available.
It's main compensation is that it is beautifully danced, especially by Vladimir Malakhov's noble and incredibly graceful Nutcracker and Nadja Saidakova's elegant and captivatingly danced Marie. Olivier Matz is also very good as Drosselmeyer, while it is a rather one-dimensional assumption of the role it is much more to do with how the character is choreographed/conceived rather than Matz. Most of the choreography doesn't impress, but two dances do, the exquisite "Grand Pas-De-Deux" (that dance seems incapable of being ruined) and the fun "Chinese Dance". Successful too is the orchestral playing, being beautiful and lithe in tone and bring a lot of colour despite having to cope with too many inappropriately slow tempos. Sound is excellent.
On the other hand, there are a lot of major flaws, namely that the concept just didn't work for me. Again, don't mind a different approach to the storytelling as long as it makes sense, the spirit of the ballet is still there and that it serves the music well. The concept does none of those things, the psychological drama aspect that dominates the first half is far too dreary and filled with ugly visuals as well as confusing the story quite badly (often the viewer doesn't understand what's going on), even in Act II the enchantment of the ballet never comes to life and it is constantly at odds with Tchaikovsky's music. What happens at the beginning belongs more at home in a Rossini opera buffa/comedy or a Mozart Singspiel.
Despite the beautiful dancing of it, the choreography is often far too hectic and convoluted that it was an amazement that such a fine job was done by the dances. Particularly disappointing was the "Arabian Dance", a sensual dance that was more reminiscent of acrobatics in a circus which didn't mesh. A lot of the divertissements in fact seemed either too stiff or too busy, feeling more like dance showpieces and showing off very confused acrobatic choreography but without any feeling or regard for the story, almost like the concept was sometimes forgotten about.
Visually the production is quite ugly even for the concept, with far too darkly lit sets and an awkward and incoherent mish-mash of costumes. A huge problem too is the conducting of Daniel Barenboim, it completely misses the lightness, elegance and graceful charm of Tchaikovsky's music and conducts it with a heavy-handed Wagnerian touch, with "Waltz of the Flowers" done at inappropriately funereal speed, a lot of Act 1 taken like a dirge and the most lifeless account of "Russian Dance" (or "Trepek") you'll hear anywhere. The lighting and picture quality are inadequately dreary and dull, and even when it lights up in Act 2 it's too little too late.
In summary, weird and joyless 'Nutcracker' despite beautiful dancing. 4/10 Bethany Cox
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