Opera House, Zürich
December 9, 2017
Snowy Zürich and a buzzing Christmas market glitters next to the Opera House, floodlit in festive red. So far, so traditional, however onstage, ballet director, Christian Spuck offers something more alternative. Nutcracker and the Mouse King, based on the fairy-tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann builds on his narrative strengths to deliver a production full of fantasy, laced with humour, spiced with irony and the cherry on the top: a heart-warming love story. He avoids the well-known Alexandre Dumas/Marius Petipa reading keeping the narrative alive to the final curtain and juggling Tchaikovsky’s score into a dramatically different configuration.
The original tale tells the history of the blood feud between the nephew/Nutcracker/prince character and the mouse king and queen that results in the transformation first of Princess Pirlipat and later Drosselmeier’s nephew. Drosselmeier, a strong central performance from Dominik Slavkovský, maintains a constant, if mainly peripheral, presence directing the action from the side his eloquent fingers signalling his Machiavellian mind moves.
Rufus Didwszus’ set, a gaudy gilt proscenium arch, contrasted by the moody black of a stage within a stage, allows the story to flow seamlessly while Buki Shiff’s costumes find contrast between monochrome Rococo elegance for the royal court, nineteenth century party dress for Marie’s world and any amount of fantasy between.
The plot is complicated. At its heart is our human fixation on exterior beauty, but Marie and the nephew reveal their inner qualities by seeing past the hideous nutcracking teeth that are the result of the rodent’s curse. True love conquers all and finds expression in their beautifully understated grand pas danced by Marie, in white frock and soft shoes, her true love in shirt, trousers, Fair isle knit and wearing glasses. The deep emotion is evident as she literally falls into his arms and tumbles over his shoulder. Spuck accentuates the climaxes in the lush score in high flying lifts or by contrast in the simplest of moments as the lovers stand and gaze into each other’s eyes.
The role of Marie (more commonly named Clara in British productions) needs both the freshness of youth and the technique of a first soloist. Michelle Willems, recently graduated from the Junior Ballet, ticks all the boxes in a performance that radiates sincerity. William Moore was in his element as the romantic hero: both vulnerable boy and rock-solid partner. When transformed to the Nutcracker with a disfiguring mask of teeth, he scores in a virtuoso solo, timing his pirouettes to finish in stilted poses precisely on cue in imitation of a mechanical toy.
Three clowns play the chorus, linking the scenes, moving the action along and providing shed loads of humour. The musical member, Ina Callejas, sits on stage from the start dozing with her accordion on her lap. She gives the familiar Sugar Plum Variation a new guise, picking out the tune in distracted fashion to open the show before the magnificent orchestra under the baton of Paul Connelly, join in. The dancing clowns, Yen Han and Matthew Knight relish their comedy partnership with Knight bagging the bonus of a neat tap routine.
Other hackneyed melodies, notably the Waltz of the Flowers, have a radical reworking. The men, bare chested with bright silk trousers and sporting beards of flowers, face a formidable posse of petalled partners. In the lead, feisty Anna Khamzina, despite a fluffy pink wig, is not a blossom to be messed with. The choreography is equally out of line – metaphorically speaking – clean cut arabesques are a given; but degenerate into hip swivelling breaks at a moment’s notice.
Snow Queen, Elena Vostrotina, in non-alpine black and gold and Sugar Plum Fairy, Viktorina Kapitonova, in an outrageous plate-like tutu of sugared delights, play ballerinas off duty enjoying the festive fun. Spuck, as revealed in his infamous Grand Pas de Deux, is a master of the ballet send-up, a talent brought to perfection by his company. This is a production to be enjoyed on so many levels, sending the audience home in a warm glow.