Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - ballet (1892) [95:00]
Choreography by Pär Isberg
Libretto by Pär Isberg and Erik Näslund
Uncle Blue’s maid - Marie Lindquist
The charcoal burner/
The prince - Anders Nordström
Petter - Jens Rosén
Lotta - Alexandra Kastrinos
Uncle Blue - Weit Carlsson
Aunt Brown - Charlotte Stälhammar
Aunt Green - Helene Perback-Lindgren
Aunt Lavender - Kristin Kåge
The mouse king - Mats Jansson
The snow queen - Eva Nissen
The Royal Swedish Ballet
Pupils from the Swedish Ballet School
The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra/Renat Salavatov
Directed for TV and video by Gunilla Wallin
rec. live, Royal Swedish Opera, 1999
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Picture format: 4:3
Region code: 0
DVD 9, PAL
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107 086 [95:00]
Even though Sweden today has a centre-right government, when this recording was made in 1999 the country was still run by the Swedish Social Democratic Party, who, according to their Wikipedia entry, were and are “strong supporters of feminism, equality of all kinds, and - [display] a strong opposition to what they perceive as discrimination and racism.”
This, the Royal Swedish Ballet’s fifth production of The Nutcracker and one heavily influenced by Swedish folklore, seems to be – and do forgive me if I seem to become a little fanciful here - very much a politically correct version that reflects the Social Democrat values of its time in rejecting the “conventional” Nutcracker story’s sexism, hierarchical class structure and racial stereotyping.
Folklore first - Anyone looking for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s familiar characters will be disappointed – though also, I wager, intrigued by their replacement with traditional characters made familiar to Swedish children through Elsa Beskow’s Petter and Lotta’s Christmas. The young heroine has become Lotta and, to avoid any accusations of sexual discrimination, her brother Petter has been given a significantly beefed up role that sees him virtually replicating his sister’s part for long stretches of the action. Meanwhile, the children’s parents and grandparents have been replaced by three aunts and an uncle, with the latter the equivalent of that enigmatic and rather dark character Drosselmayer. There is also a comely family housemaid who later becomes the prince’s big squeeze - you’ll look in vain for any sugar plum fairy. Finally, the prince gains an extra persona, for he is not just the nutcracker in this version but also a charcoal burner.
Political correctness - As well as the gender equalisation that enhances Petter’s role to match Lotta’s, and the rejection of class antagonism demonstrated by the prince/housemaid romance, the Swedish Nutcracker also tackles the issue of racial stereotyping head-on. Not only are generic make-up and costumes abandoned, but the entire concept of “national” dances is dismissed too. Thus, there’s no Spanish dance, just one by the “gingerbread folk”. Similarly, the usual preening pair of Chinese dancers have been replaced by dancing “peppermint rock candy”, while the girls of the Arabian dance have been pensioned off to the great harem in the sky. Instead we see the three aunts in an amusingly choreographed display of musical sleepwalking. The usual prancing and kicking cossacks have their Russian dance performed by “Christmas crackers”, and the Dance of the mirlitons is executed by a team of tame mice, presumably to placate the Swedish Mouse Liberation Front’s outrage at their earlier defeat in battle - even though in a politically correct world, no one is ever actually allowed to “lose”.
Anyway, enough of this somewhat extended and increasingly fragile flight of fancy. What of the performances? In that respect, you’re in for a treat. While, admittedly, none of the principals is a world superstar, all are more than competent in their roles, while, as an ensemble, the whole company is well matched and performs to an undeniably high standard. They may lack the tight, disciplined precision of a Russian troupe but more than make up for that deficiency - if that’s how you see it - with masses of twinkly charm – which is a real plus in The Nutcracker above all.
I enjoyed too the contribution of the orchestra under Kazakh-born Renat Salavatov. The most detail that I have been able to discover about him comes from the website of Turkey’s Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival (see here) which supplies the intriguing information that, touring to the United Kingdom with the Mariinsky company after 1989, he “made great achievements - “Salavatov the Magnificent”, “Moderate Grace of Salavatov”. These are how Great Britain press emphasized their impressions regarding performances of the conductor”. I must, I suppose, have been out of the country at the time to have missed all that ballyhoo – but I’m belatedly and genuinely pleased to make Salavatov the Magnificent’s acquaintance on this DVD.
The sets and lighting will, I’m afraid, worry some. A great deal of the action takes place in comparative gloom and, while I don’t think it’s entirely justified to label this - as some have done – as a psychologically dark production, it might have been more enjoyable from the viewer’s point of view to have seen some of the dancers’ skilful footwork just a little more clearly.
Not, then, a first choice for a Nutcracker, perhaps, but certainly an interesting supplement for anyone seeking a new slant on a popular old favourite or intending to cast a vote next time for the Social Democratic Party.
Not a first choice but certainly an interesting supplement for anyone seeking a new slant on a popular old favourite or intending to cast a vote for the Social Democratic Party.