Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King - ballet (1892) [108:00]
Clara Staalboom - Anna Tsygankova
Prince/Mr Drosselmeijer’s nephew - Matthew Golding
Nutcracker - James Stout
Mr Drosselmeijer - Wolfgang Tietze
Louise, Clara’s sister - Nadia Yanowsky
Frits, Clara’s brother - Rink Sliphorst
Mouse King - Alexander Zhembrovskyy
Mr Staalboom - Nicolas Rapaic
Mrs Staalboom - Rachel Beaujean
Young Clara - Amaljá Yuno
Young Frits - Giovanni van den Berg
Poet - Juanjo Arqués
Faun - Roman Artyushkin
Old Don Juan - Steven Etienne
Prince inside the magic lantern - Oleksey Smolyakov
Princess inside the magic lantern - Erica Horwood
Leading snowflakes - Maria Chugal and Sasha Mukamedov
Students from the Nationale Balletacademie Amsterdam
Children’s Choir ‘Waterland’
Holland Symfonia/Ermanno Florio
Choreography: Toer van Schayk and Wayne Eagling
Video director: Jeff Tudor
rec. live, Amsterdam Music Theatre, 2011
Bonus: interviews with choreographers and dancers; backstage footage [27:00]
Sound: PCM stereo, DD 5.1
Picture: 16:9/NTSC
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101 636 [108:00 + 27:00]

The Blu-ray of Dutch National Ballet’s Don Quichotte is a veritable treat, not least for the fabulous dancing of principals Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding (review). They’re back in this clever, low-sugar adaptation of a festive favourite, which offers some novel twists along the way. This ballet is no stranger to reinterpretation; I much enjoyed Matthew Bourne’s corrective Nutcracker! set in a Victorian orphanage and brimming with sly gestures and lewd imaginings. A less saccharine version of this balletic bon-bon would be hard to imagine; indeed, his Kingdom of the Sweets is a wicked - even hallucinogenic - take on the perils of food colouring and excessive E numbers.
This Dutch production isn’t quite so iconoclastic. Outwardly it’s an indigenous affair, with names changed to match, but it does have a few revisions of its own. That said, it starts traditionally enough, with Clara and her bratty brother Frits preparing for the St Nicholas’ Eve celebrations. The skaters on the canal add to the festive air, but despite all the fenestration the stage remains surprisingly dark. I rather like the introduction to Carroll Ballard’s 1987 film of The Nutcracker - still to appear on DVD or Blu-ray - in which the vaguely sinister, eye-patched Drosselmeyer is seen making the children’s toys.
The subdued Low Country lighting of this Dutch production, so familiar from those Old Masters, mutes all colour and opulence. Still, the Staalbooms are well-to-do burghers and they put on a dignified show. The youngsters from the Balletacademie - some are very young indeed - dance well enough, although the restless camerawork and less-than-fluid stage business makes for a slightly disorienting experience. I’ve no such quibbles about the music which, for the most part, is well played and recorded. Also, from the expectant buzz at the start one’s always aware this is a theatrical event, and that adds a welcome frisson to the proceedings.
The big surprise in Act I - well, perhaps not, given the Mouse King subtitle - is that the rodents are the victors. In this witty but understated reversal of expectations the defeated soldiers are taken away in a cage, while the casualties are stretchered off by the Red Cross. It could so easily be twee, but thanks to sensible, coherent direction it works a treat. Also impressive is the handsome, characterful Mouse King, given a rare sense of presence by Alexander Zhembrovskyy. That Don Quichotte demonstrated that Tsygankova and Golding are a breathtaking, intuitive partnership, and the Snow pas de deux just confirms that. Wonderfully fluent, poised and seemingly effortless they’re a joy to watch, while in the pit Ermanno Florio draws rich, full-bodied playing from the Holland Symfonia.
After a slightly uncertain start this Nutcracker seems to have found its feet at last. The simple but effective sets - dominated by those tall canal-side windows - work well, and Toer van Schayk and Wayne Eagling’s choreography is quite attractive too. Act II is somewhat unusual in that the Kingdom of the Sweets is replaced by an enlarged version of the magic lantern first seen in Act I. It’s a clever conceit, as the visual aspects of this production depend on the artful use of light, or chiaroscuro; and, by definition, the Laterna Magica marks a similar contrast, this time between reality and fantasy.
The lantern’s huge lens forms a simple but arresting backdrop to the action, which includes the Mouse King’s defeat by the Nutcracker and the national dances. Despite some imaginative touches - the diaphanous Arabians are watched over by a whip-cracking slave master, and the Chinese dancers don’t certainly don’t belong to the traditional, Yum-Yum school of chinoiserie - momentum starts to flag. Visually the added Greek Dance just looks messy, and during the Jota there’s an unexpected shift in musical perspective - a bit of unnecessary spotlighting, perhaps - that’s not very pleasing either.
That said, the staging remains simple but effective; for instance, during the Arabian Dance that lens becomes an exotically patterned disc that really draws the eye. And therein lies the rub; these details - discreet as they are - tend to dominate, rather than the dancing. Indeed, the Dance of the Flowers is surprisingly mechanical; even the music becomes a tad rough and rumty-tumty, which makes this performance seem all too like an overtired matinee. A pity, as it started reasonably well. There are sparks in the Grand pas de deux and Golding’s and Tsygankova’s solos, but precious little fire. Clearly this couple are the darlings of Dutch ballet - hence the prolonged cheers and applause - but the dull, downbeat ending left me feeling cheated.
There’s also a half-hour bonus of awkward interviews that makes for painful viewing. If we must have these things - the one on that Don Quichotte disc was especially dreadful - at least entrust them to professional interviewers who know what questions to ask. Despite moments of promise this Nutcracker just goes downhill fast; even the principals’ smiles look a little fixed, and the orchestral playing get a untidier as the evening wears on. My biggest gripe is that there’s no real fantasy here; yes, there is some playfulness, but otherwise it’s all rather joyless. If you want a top-notch - and traditional - Nutcracker then Birmingham Royal Ballet’s classic version with Miyako Yoshida and Irek Mukhamedov is the one to have. Now there’s a glittering show, with fabulous dancing and seamless, spontaneous music-making from the under-rated Barry Wordsworth and his fine musicians. Now all we need is that Ballard film on DVD and Blu-ray….
This is Nutcracker-lite; it’s short on magic, too.
Dan Morgan  

Nutcracker-lite; short on magic, too.