The Nutcracker, Royal Opera House, London

The joy of distant fiction
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The Independent Culture

Every year people drag small children along to see The Nutcracker, but in many ways it's the least appropriate of the Tchaikovsky ballets for kids. You see little girls in their new Monsoon outfits and matching hair-bands jigging with excitement before they take their seats, then slumped and listless during the plotless second act, immune to the production's most strident efforts to please them. I've lost count of the Barbie dolls and Lara Crofts and Transformer clones that have emerged from Dr Drosselmeyer's box of tricks at the Act One party. But at its heart, Nutcracker is an adult's view of childhood, its music - that heart-rending music - the wistful outpouring of a saddened, ageing man for whom innocence and laughter were a distant fiction.

The joy of the Royal Ballet's current production - brought out of mothballs after a three-year break - is that it refuses to accept that modernising and localising is the only way to bring classics to life. Peter Wright's scenario stresses the German roots of the ETA Hoffmann story, and the late Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs present an opulent, 19th-century Nuremberg where a family might well throw a lavish end-of-year party for four generations of local gentry.

The care and delight in historical detail in this production is frankly wasted on under-10s. The tree in the Stahlbaum's drawing room is hung with pastry stars, the presents have muslin wrappings, the arthritic grandfather a Biedermeier wheelchair, and in place of cake there is a rococo table decoration moulded in sugar that reappears as the set for Act Two.

Peter Wright applies the same integrity to redressing the problems of plot (one half has too much, the other none at all). Where other directors invent desperate Freudian motives for characters, Wright simply applies a touch of Hoffmannesque logic and has Drosselmeyer conjure the Act II dances as a treat for Clara and his nephew, who join in with a winning enthusiasm. This is sophisticated, adult magic, and has little to do with sweets or toys.

Tuesday's first-night cast was blessed with a first-class Clara in Iohna Loots - fresh, excitable, and the right side of sweet, who calibrates the shift from girlish to womanly feeling with subtlety and insight. Her first-tentative, then-reckless Act One pas de deux with Ricardo Cervera (an impeccable Nutcracker) rides the gorgeous swell of the orchestra with thrilling assurance.

Another attraction of this Nutcracker is its Waltz of the Snowflakes, the white-tutu'd climax that's more often than not re-written. However, the Royal Ballet had sight of Russian notations smuggled out of St Petersburg just before the Revolution, and theirs is as close to Ivanov's original as it gets. The "hachures and patterns of snow crystals, the monograms and arabesques of the plastique of frost" noted by a Russian critic in the 1890s are given crisp definition by the Royal's corps de ballet.

As for the fantasy dances of Act II, there are funnier Chinese, sexier Arabian and more athletic Russian dances to be found elsewhere, but not, in my experience, all in the same package. I was particularly impressed by Isabel McMeekan's cool in the bare-bellied, aerial Arabian dance where the reddening wheals across her stomach betrayed the effort of her four male handlers as well as her own endurance.

The perennial puzzler for any Nutcracker novice is the sudden switch of focus, in the ballet's final minutes, to a grand ballerina they have never previously seen. Wright's treatment prepares the ground by setting the preceding Rose Waltz as a formal tutu number. That way the grandeur of Sugar Plum and her consort at least has a context. Their true raison d'etre is to present Clara with an image of mature, grown-up love - gracious, considerate and at ease. And on Tuesday Miyako Yoshida was that beacon of authority - polished, musically alert, and beautifully partnered by Federico Bonelli. I've not seen a couple sail so stylistically close to the definitive performance of two decades ago by Anthony Dowell and Lesley Collier. This could well have something to do with the fact that Collier is now an RB company coach. At all events, it's something to celebrate.

To 5 January, 020 7304 4000

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

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