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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker - ballet in two Acts (1892) [102:00]
After Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Choreography and stage direction by Rudolf Nureyev
Set and costume design by Nicholas Georgiadis
Clara - Liudmila Konovalova
Drosselmeyer/Prince - Vladimir Shishov
Luisa and Fritz/Spanish dance - Emilia Baranowicz and Davide Dato
The parents/Russian dance - Franziska Wallner-Hollinek and Gabor Oberegger
The grandparents / Arabian dance - Eva Polacek and Christoph Wenzel
The rat king - Attila Bakó and Martin Winter
Little nutcracker - Trevor Hayden
Two snowflakes - Alena Klochkova and Prisca Zeisel
Arabian dance - Ketevan Papava and Eno Peci
Chinese dance - Marcin Dempc, András Lukács and Richard Szabó
Pastorale - Ioanna Avraam, Kiyoka Hashimoto and Masayu Kimoto
Corps de ballet, students of the Ballet Academy of the Wiener Staatsoper, children of the Opera School of the Wiener Staatsoper
Stage Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper/Paul Connelly
rec. live, Wiener Staatsoper, 7 October 2012
Filmed in High Definition and mastered from an HD source
Sound formats: PCM stereo + DTS 5.0
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
C MAJOR DVD 718208 [102:00]

Here we have not Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, nor even Wiener Staatsballett's The Nutcracker. Instead we are offered Rudolf Nureyev's The Nutcracker. My twenty years old VHS copy of the Paris Opera Ballet's performance of this production also carries the great man's name above the title, so I surmise that there may be some sort of contractual obligation to bill it that way. It's worth, therefore, addressing any confusion among potential purchasers by pointing out that this is Nureyev's own production of the ballet rather than a film of him actually dancing in it: he had been dead for two decades before this performance was actually recorded.
 
While I always respected Nureyev the dancer and high-profile ballet ambassador, I have not always appreciated his productions of some of the great 19th century classics. His very personal take on Don Quixote, for instance, strikes me as dumbed-down in its general approach, well exemplified in the vulgarised orchestration that he commissioned from John Lanchbery (see here).
 
Nureyev’s Nutcracker was originally conceived in the late 1960s and is seen on this DVD is its final 1985 revision for Paris Opera Ballet of which he was Director at the time. It, too, is a distinctively idiosyncratic and, in this case, un-sugary take. In the opening street scene, for example, we’re usually offered a quaint piece of middle-class Victoriana straight out of Quality Street. Here, however, the very first characters we see are a gang of street toughs who harass a couple of bourgeois matrons - and actually carry one of them off on their shoulders to who knows what fate - before they mug Drosselmeyer in an attempt to steal his nutcracker doll. In a similar tone, the later attack on Clara by the inventively choreographed mice has a definite atmosphere of sexual assault about it.
 
The Nureyev production’s basic concept is that once Clara falls asleep in the first Act (26:23), virtually everything that follows is a dream. Characters from her real life reappear, sometimes in grotesquely exaggerated form, while Nicholas Georgiadis's striking sets and costumes frequently undermine any sense of recognisable normality. Drosselmeyer is fortunate enough to be reinvented as the handsome prince, while the girl's siblings become Spanish dancers, her parents take part in the vigorous Russian peasants’ dance and her grandparents join in the Arabian dance, on this occasion a rather strange episode in which the participants spend much of their time languorously eating invisible but apparently rather tasty titbits from a large platter. The corps de ballet suffers the most striking transformation, reappearing with monstrously enlarged heads that are even more visually disturbing for being weirdly accurate in their reproduction of the dancers’ actual physiognomies. They also sport voluminous cloaks that make them resemble giant bats (52:30-55:44).
 
Much of Clara's dream is so dark and psychologically troubled that it's better described as a nightmare. Jessica Duchen's useful booklet note suggests that, faced with the transformation of the rather sinister Drosselmeyer into a glamorous prince, adolescent Clara's "guilt and confusion over her feelings ... lend an oppressive quality to her dream". Julie Kavanagh, in her definitive biography Rudolf Nureyev: The life (London, 2007) makes the point even more strongly. Nureyev's conception, she suggests, is "far more sinister (than we usually encounter) ... a virtual enactment of a paedophiliac fantasy ... Freudian and forbidden... (and set in) a terrifyingly surreal world" (Kavanagh, op. cit., 2008 edn., p.375). For me, that dream-world appears less surreal than expressionist, but instead of debating art history terms let's just agree to accept that it's simply very peculiar and unsettling indeed.
 
Nureyev’s "dark" interpretation of The Nutcracker has always polarised opinion. The DVD's packaging quotes critic Clive Barnes' approving assertion that "no version... that we have ever seen has been more potently dramatic; few have displayed so sharp an imprint of personal style". Not everyone has been so positive. Writing of Nureyev's original production in Dance and Dancers magazine in 1968, Don McDonagh decried the influence of "the agony of the analyst's couch" and queried, in an era when PC still referred to Dixon of Dock Green, whether Clara could believably be "sexually obsessed with a limping old man with an eye patch who looks like Long John Silver". More seriously, perhaps, he went on to suggest that "if the Tchaikovsky music is used, there is no escaping its mellifluous tonality, and the attempt to make it bear the psychological weight of tortured sexuality that Nureyev has unloaded upon its unwary shoulders is a dreadful mistake" (quoted in Jack Anderson The Nutcracker Ballet, London 1979, p.151).
 
There, then, you have both sides of the case - "potently dramatic" or "a dreadful mistake" - and I can do no more than leave it up to you to decide whether or not this very distinctive production may appeal. What, I hear you asking, of the actual performances preserved on this disc?
 
If the name Wiener Staatsballett is unfamiliar, I should perhaps point out that it’s a new one that was given, just four years ago, to the familiar ballet company of the Wiener Staatsoper. The Vienna troupe’s credentials in this work are certainly not in doubt, for its Director Manuel Legris was both a Paris Opera Ballet étoile and a Nureyev protégé. In truth, however, it is the two leading dancers who are crucial here, for Nureyev’s decision to create single combined roles of Drosselmeyer/the prince and Clara/the princess ensures that even heavier than usual responsibilities rest on them for the success or failure of any performance.
 
Fortunately, Vladimir Shishov (see here) rises fully to the challenge. He is one of what is these days quite a rare breed, the danseur noble who radiates authority and confidence merely by his physical bearing on stage. That is not to suggest that he lacks technical proficiency, for he is certainly up to all that the role demands. He eschews, however, the athletic flashiness often associated with more slightly-built dancers and replaces it with a sense of rock-solid security.
 
Shishov makes, thereby, an admirable partner for Liudmila Konovalova. She does well in the first Act and certainly makes a convincing adolescent Clara. Her girlish characterisation as she dances for her doll (20:00-21:18 and 22:12-22:50) is very effective and her Scene 5 pas de deux with Shishov (34:56-38:50) is also very well executed. Once she is no longer the “real life” Clara character, however, I thought her slow to rise to the occasion in the second Act’s big romantic moments. If that is rather surprising in such an experienced dancer (see here), I think that the problem is that she lacks on-stage charisma and adopts a resolutely fixed smile that fails to convey what, if anything, is going on behind the mask. While her dancing is absolutely fine – with its general restraint emphasised by her partner’s dramatic flourishes - at least on the evidence of this performance she does not yet command the stage as she needs to.
 
Apart from the two leads, there is some effective dancing to be seen here. After a rather messy first 20 minutes (see below), it was something of a relief to see some characterful work from Drosselmeyer’s three toys. In the Act 2 divertissements - taking place in Clara’s family sitting room rather than in the kingdom of sweets - the “national” dances are also well executed, though played largely for comedy rather than atmosphere. After the sweet-eating Arabs, we encounter ten “incompetent” Russians who keep attempting to upstage their peers when not actually bumping into them. Then come a trio of shaven-headed and moustached Chinese clones who look like they’re on their way home after an evening at a gay nightclub. The pastorale is danced well enough, though by adults: my own preference is for the Russian tradition of giving that dance to child dancers of the highest quality: see here for a performance by three who were to grow up to be top stars of Soviet ballet.
 
On the subject of children, those who play such a big role in this production’s party scene are certainly very enthusiastic. However, undeniably, many of them are also rather rough around the edges when it comes to dance technique and coordinating their actions with those of the rest of the company. Some of the younger ones, in particular, appear unsure at times of what they are supposed to be doing. The children fill the stage to the extent that at times they obscure the adult dancers’ actions. Moreover, the strong accompanying whiff of am. dram. must inevitably begin to affect all but the most indulgent viewers’ perception of the whole production. This is a situation where everyone, apart from the claque of doting parents in the audience, would have benefited from casting a smaller group of only the more talented children.
 
The adults of the corps de ballet do well in this performance, though sometimes with the odds decidedly stacked against them – and I’m not only referring to those children. While the waltz of the snowflakes that ends the first act is very prettily executed and the dancers are flattered by some beautiful costumes, Nureyev must have been having a bad day when he put together an Act 2 waltz of the flowers that is, to my eyes, something of a disaster. Dull choreography, tacky all-gold costumes for both sexes and a bland and dully-lit all-gold stage make the whole thing a huge and seemingly never-ending anti-climax.
 
Turning to the music, the very experienced Paul Connelly leads the orchestra effectively and the players don’t put a foot wrong. In general, too, the film has been shot very well, though the unnecessary close-up of the sleeping Clara at 26:23 unfortunately, if temporarily, destroys our suspension of disbelief as we can see that in reality the understandably exhausted Ms Konovalova is in desperate need of a can of anti-perspirant. An equally unnecessary montage of earlier scenes, placed just before Clara’s eventual awakening so as to cover the scene change, also destroys our illusions by reminding us that we are watching some 21st century technical manipulation rather than live on-stage action.
 
The disc preserves the performance in excellent image and sound. There is a momentary judder at 55:45, attributable, I would imagine, to the technical issues of dual layering, but it is sensitively placed and does not disrupt the dancing. Unfortunately, the opportunity has not been taken to add any extra features, which seems something of a missed opportunity in the case of such a distinctive - and frequently fascinating - production.
 
Rob Maynard