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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - ballet (1892) [103:00]
Libretto by Marius Petipa after E.T.A. Hoffman
Choreography by Vasily Vainonen
Production design by Simon Virsaladze
Masha the princess - Alina Somova
Nutcracker prince - Vladimir Shklyarov
Masha the child - Alexandra Korshunova
Stahlbaum - Vladimir Ponomaryov
His wife - Alexandra Gronskaya
Luisa - Alena Mashintseva
Franz - Pavel Miheyev
Drosselmeyer - Fyodor Lopukhov
Grandmother - Lira Khuslamova
Grandfather - Stanislav Burov
Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Director - Andreas Morell
rec. live, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, 2012
Sound formats: L-PCM stereo + DTS + Dolby 5.1 surround sound
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Region code: 0
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 656309 [103:00] 

Of Tchaikovsky’s three full-length ballet scores, it is The Nutcracker that tends to attract producers seeking to offer audiences a new perspective. The story's psychological ambiguities and, indeed, its sheer weirdness offer them great scope to do that. As a result, adventurous DVD buyers can choose between plenty of rather odd conceptions.

On these pages in recent years I have reviewed a Nutcracker with a Swedish twist (see here) and another with markedly Dutch idiosyncrasies (see here). A memorably bonkers third version had an overall concept that seemed barely to derive from anywhere recognisable as planet Earth at all (see here).

One DVD that I did not write about, however, was Mihail Chemiakin's production for the Mariinsky Ballet, given a high profile release by Decca as recently as 2007. Personally, I found that among the least compelling Nutcracker reinventions. The reworking of the story, along with some unattractive sets and Kirill Simonov’s occasionally rather awkward and graceless choreography rendered it, for me at least, a non-starter. Interestingly enough, though, the conductor in that version, Valery Gergiev, now leads this new (2012) recorded performance that returns to the familiar 1934 Soviet Nutcracker as choreographed by Vasili Vainonen, arguably one of the most influential stagings in the ballet’s history.

It has sometimes been suggested that Gergiev has, at the Mariinsky, shown far less interest in ballet than in opera. Certainly, on this occasion, at least, his account of Tchaikovsky’s score is, at least to my ears, rather low key and relatively uninvolving. We know from his idiomatic and compelling 1998 CD recording (Philips 462 114-2) that Gergiev can put far more drama and heart into this music. Perhaps he simply feels more involved with the score when divorced from the necessity of concerning himself with any on-stage action: certainly on this occasion I found much of the musical accompaniment to the dancing lacklustre and even, at times, rather dull. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that so many quite prolonged shots of Gergiev are included. Interestingly, they reveal that in the five years since his last DVD performance of The Nutcracker he has chosen to abandon the baton, for in this 2012 performance he instead employs the constantly-fluttering fingers of his right hand.
The production does little to stimulate greater enthusiasm. Other companies have shown how the Nutcracker story lends itself to striking visuals that can add immeasurably to the overall theatrical impact. Here, however, the designs and the colour palette all too often look as if they have been selected simply to appeal to infant wannabe ballerinas. Thus, the salmon pink backdrop confronting us as the curtain rises for Act 1 merely becomes, by the third Act, a rather less in-your-face pastel shade of the same colour.
Although I’m not a costume historian, the character’s clothes in the “realistic” first Act appear to be a rather odd mixture of 18th century frock coats, men’s outfits from the era of the French Directory (straight out of Abel Gance’s Napoleon), a few Empire-line dresses for some of the more statuesque girls and generic “Charles Dickens” style outer clothes that resemble nothing so much as those worn by the smug Victorians depicted on a tin of Quality Street sweets. The “mouse” costumes are rather shapeless and tatty onesies, while the rodent king’s first appearance out of a cloud of smoke makes him look like a monster from a particularly threadbare 1950s Hollywood Z-movie. Other costumes are simply silly. What are those pom-poms attached to the arms of the “snowflake” dancers during their waltz - maybe snowflakes on snowflakes, perhaps? Those strangely kitsch objects - I know of no word to describe them - that are stuck on the top of the women’s heads in the visually rather insipid (white on white) Waltz of the flowers really need to go if we are to take things at all seriously.

Some very fine dancing certainly deserves more imaginative and attractive showcasing. Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov make a good-looking, well-matched couple and are technically utterly self-assured. Ms Somova’s rather limited range of facial expressions suggests, however, a few deficiencies in her acting ability. Her smile often appears forced and false and her default expression of “glazed, wide-eyed wonder” is something of an unintentional joke. Unfortunately, her defects are emphasised in comparison with her partner Mr Shklyarov who acts entirely naturally. It has to be conceded, however, that when, in the third Act, Ms Somova no longer needs to act a part but simply to dance, the absence of realistic facial expressions ceases to be an issue.
The leads are well supported by the other character dancers. The “child” Masha, Alexandra Korshunova, makes a very positive impression from the point where she is handed her doll and dances confidently with Drosselmeyer (from about 20:20 until 24:25). Thereafter she holds the audience in the palm of her hand and is already, I would venture, something of a star in the making. A few of the dancers in smaller parts make impressions strong enough for me to have noted their names: Konstantin Ivkin is a lively toy clown, Alexei Popov is a similarly animated Moor, Grigori Popov enchants the audience by his acrobatic antics as one of the Chinese dancers and the child dancer Roman Surkov delights them (71:35 - 72:15) with skilfully executed entrechats in the pas de trois. The corps de ballet, traditionally a great strength of the Mariinsky company, is in fine form and the enthusiastic but well-marshalled children make a strong impact, especially when the boys’ army do battle against the troops of the mouse king.
In contrast to the performance that it records, this film tries rather too hard to be technically novel and inventive. Imaginative camera positioning and movement - one of the great joys of Margaret Dale’s BBC TV productions in the 1950s and 1960s (see here and here) - can be a real plus in filmed ballet and can offer the viewer at home valuable insights denied to the theatre audience. On this occasion the director has really gone rather too far. We are frequently denied the opportunity to take in the wider performance because roving cameras are seeking out some distracting - and even irrelevant - finer detail rather than giving us the full picture of the on-stage action.
On some occasions there were shots taken from an elevated position that, as a viewer, I found quite out of place and jarring: 38:21 - 38:31, 68:44 - 68:52 and, worst of all, 77:29 - 77:47 where the camera first descends from the heights and then reverses the move for no apparent reason at all. There were too many times when we are allowed to see only the upper halves of dancers’ bodies when we really needed to appreciate what their feet were up to. On other occasions, camera positions were poorly chosen: I imagine for instance, that at 96:57 - 96:58 a brief shot of Ms Somova’s beaming face had been planned, but unfortunately the camera had been placed at a point where her attractive features were completely obscured by other dancers’ hands.
Once or twice the direction also makes the choreography confusing. Between 80:03 and 80:17, for example, we see two pairs of dancers crossing the stage diagonally one after the other, but confused camerawork means that the first pair’s action isn’t clearly shown and it’s only when the second pair is filmed in long shot that we can appreciate the choreographer’s intention: wouldn’t it have been clearer if the long shot had shown the first pair of dancers, rather than the second? A few headlines to reviews already posted on one leading online retailer’s website echo my own misgivings: “Missed a lot of wonderful dancing because of bad directing”, “Joyless Nutcracker that’s marred by awful camerawork” and, from one reviewer who certainly doesn’t mince his words, “Film director should go to jail.”
The presentation of the disc is also open to criticism. It comes in a cardboard folder that, if you buy by mail order, will be subject to the vagaries of packaging: my own copy arrived by post in a rather knocked-about state which wouldn’t have happened to a conventional plastic box. The accompanying booklet contains only a list of the cast and the disc’s tracks and a brief synopsis that, presumably for reasons of space, is adequate but lacks detail. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc itself. One good point, however, is that the slight pause usually associated with dual-layering - you can Google “dual layering DVDs slight pause” if you’re feeling technical - is placed at a point where the audience is applauding Maestro Gergiev between Acts and so it does not affect the dancing at all.
If you are looking for a performance of the Vainonen version on DVD,you are better off, I’d suggest, going for the 1994 recording starring the charismatic Larissa Lezhnina in the roles of both Masha-the-child and Masha-the-princess, with Victor Baranov as a most engaging Nutcracker/Prince - my own copy is on Philips 070 173-2. For that performance, the conductor at the Kirov - since renamed the Mariinsky - was the hugely-experienced veteran Victor Fedotov and he gives us a vital, involving and hugely affectionate account of the score. While it may not boast the completely crisp picture that we expect nowadays, the 1994 recording otherwise hardly shows its age and is quite simply a more enjoyable account. 
Even the audience seems to have regarded a Mariinsky Nutcracker as more of a special treat in 1994. The opening credits of that DVD show that many of them - especially the younger ones - had dressed up in late 19th century outfits for that occasion. In contrast, the sober grey business suits on display for this 2012 performance seem entirely appropriate for this disappointingly unremarkable new Mariinsky offering.
Rob Maynard