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

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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker is handsome, sturdy and traditional. Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs set the ballet firmly in 19th-century Nuremberg, with snow lying thick on pointed roofs, lace on the dresses and gilt on the gingerbread. When the magic Christmas tree grows, it expands with confident grandeur, rising steadily as Tchaikovsky's music surges around it.

In fact, Peter Wright's production isn't quite as traditional as it used to be. Revising it in 1999, he added aspects of his version for Birmingham Royal Ballet. The toymaker Drosselmeyer becomes a magician, Gary Avis wrapped up in a turquoise cloak. He does conjuring tricks in the Act I party scene, then returns to direct the divertissement numbers in the second act.

I wish Wright had left well alone: the changes make this Nutcracker less spontaneous. Though Avis is authoritative, the Sugar Plum Fairy is no longer in charge of her own kingdom, and the production loses some of its period warmth. But there's still enough to go round.

The Royal Ballet's character dancers give the party dramatic depth, with Christopher Saunders a warm-hearted Mr Stahl-baum and Genesia Rosato a lively Dancing Mistress. Royal Ballet School students play the children, well-brought-up but lively. Joshua Tuifa and Victoria Hewitt danced the wind-up dolls, with neat feet and a clockwork whirr of arms.

Iohna Loots looks rather grown-up for the young heroine, Clara, who releases the Nutcracker Prince from his spell. Her dancing is tidy, but she lacks wonder in the magic scenes. As the Nutcracker, Ricardo Cervera leads the mouse battle with military crispness, jumps buoyantly and mimes with directness.

The mime scene is Wright's most delightful invention. I was a Nutcracker, Cervera explains, arm swinging as the lever for his stiffened jaw. Describing his rescue, Cervera is caught up in the plot and the music, each gesture bright and expressive.

The Nutcracker keeps its audience waiting for the ballerina, with the Sugar Plum Fairy appearing only in the second act. Miyako Yoshida makes a precise, twinkling Sugar Plum. Her dancing is always crisp, though there's a smallness of scale in her solos. She was partnered by Federico Bonelli, whose velvety dancing spurs her to more expansive movement. In the coda, the Fairy and her Prince dance side by side, exactly matched, with a musical spring to their phrasing.

There was some under-casting on the first night, with stodgy dancing from the corps. Things looked up with the Waltz of the Flowers, when Deirdre Chapman, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb and Laura Morera shaded their steps with precision. As the Rose Fairy, Mara Galeazzi, danced with attack, if not particular elegance. The Russian number was the best of the national dances.

To 5 January (020-7304 4000)

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