The Nutcracker, Royal Opera House, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Peter Wright certainly doesn't look 80. This Nutcracker ended with a birthday cake and singing for its producer, a key figure at both Royal Ballet companies. In a happy end to the performance, Wright came on stage to applaud the dancers and to blow out his candles. It was an affectionate end to an evening of prettiness and sparkle.

This revival has come up brightly, with strong dancing throughout the cast. Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs are full of delicate historical detail. In her frontcloth, snow lies thick on the rooftops of 19th-century Nuremberg. Clara, the young heroine, is led on by gilded angels, with big wings, ringlets and striped skirts. Even the mouse battle is firmly in period, with red coats for the tin soldiers.

The narrative fares less well. Tchaikovsky's music was written to a scenario that put most of the plot in the first act and most of the dancing in the second. Wright has tried to adjust the drama, but the balance isn't quite right.

Wright went back to early sources for the first version of this Nutcracker, reconstructing the 19th-century dances. He then made a very different version for Birmingham Royal Ballet, choreographing his own drama and enlarging the role of the magician Drosselmeyer. In 1999, he put Birmingham material into this Covent Garden Nutcracker, dropping much of his recovered choreography. The result is half-and-half: Drosselmeyer looms over the production, without being firmly built into it. He has the magic tricks of the Birmingham version, but they have less impact in their new context. Gary Avis sweeps his blue cloak with style, but I still wish he'd stay out of the divertissement dances.

The old version made a lot more sense, but the Royal Ballet's Nutcracker still has charm - in the growing Christmas tree, in the sets and costumes, in the dancing. Iohna Loots is a bright Clara, though she could give us a greater sense of wonder. Her Nutcracker, Ricardo Cervera, has more expansive movement. Sarah Lamb has a porcelain elegance as the Rose Fairy, every step lucidly shaped. Steven McRae and Michael Stojko soar and flourish their way through the Russian dance.

Miyako Yoshida is precise and dainty. On opening night, her Sugar Plum Fairy had a doll-like prettiness: everything just so, but missing the grandeur of the music. Her prince, Federico Bonelli, is no less exact, but his dancing has a human warmth and richness.

In rep to 13 January (020-7304 4000)

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