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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The nutcracker – ballet in two Acts (1892) [107:00]
Choreography by Peter Wright, after Lev Ivanov
Herr Drosselmeyer: Gary Avis, Clara: Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Hans-Peter/The nutcracker: Marcelino Sambé, Sugar plum fairy: Marianela Nuñez, The prince: Vadim Muntagirov
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Students of the Royal Ballet School
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Barry Wordsworth
rec. 3 December 2018, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
1080i High Definition Blu-ray disc
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts-HD Master Audio
All regions
OPUS ARTE Blu-Ray OABD7259D [126mins]

When I first began reviewing here more than a decade ago, ballet DVDs and Blu-ray discs were issued somewhat rather more regularly and in greater numbers than they are today.  While it’s true that many of those releases came from companies owning the rights to vintage material and eager to give them a new lease of commercial life via the newest medium, there was also a steady stream of newly-filmed productions. 

In recent years, that flow has steadily declined to more of an irregular trickle, but one particular ballet company has nevertheless continued contributing disproportionately to the list of new releases that do still appear from time to time.  I have noted before on these pages that the Royal Ballet is currently enjoying something of a golden age. I was therefore pleased to read one of the world’s top male dancers, David Hallberg, saying much the same thing: “I feel that the Royal Ballet is dancing with an energy but also a unity that really inspires me… The company is in a really fabulous place, so it’s exciting to be there…” (quoted in The Times, 15 October 2019, Times 2, p. 8).  One of the more public manifestations of the Covent Garden company’s self-confidence is its defiance of commercial trends by demonstrating its continuing belief that there’s a market for filmed recordings of its performances. 

From what does that rare degree of commercial confidence derive?  While the consistent quality of the Royal Ballet’s staged productions is one undoubted factor, the fact that other high-profile companies also regularly mount their own superb shows yet release them on DVD much less frequently surely means that it can’t be the whole explanation.  The real answer, I think, lies in the point implied by David Hallberg’s remarks quoted above – that the Royal Ballet has, in recent years, exhibited a remarkable strength in depth. At a time when the company has had so many distinguished artists on its full-time roster or as guests, its marketing team and their business partners clearly believe that customers are prepared to invest in more than a single filmed performance of the same production.  Thus, the release of the Natalia Osipova/Carlos Acosta interpretation of Giselle as performed in 2014 (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7151 D - review) was followed only a couple of years later by that of the identical Peter Wright production as danced by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7216 D).   In the same way, the 2007 Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta’s performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (Decca Blu-ray 074 3336 - review) was joined on the same shelves, after an interval of less than five years, by that of Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7116 D - DVD review).

The same phenomenon of duplicated productions utilising different dancers in the leading roles can also be observed in the case of the three Tchaikovsky ballets.  Just confining myself to those productions that have appeared in Blu-ray format, the 2009 Royal Ballet performance of Swan lake headlined by Marianela Nuñez and her soon-to-be husband Thiago Soares (Opus Arte Blu-ray box set OA BD7131 D) was first supplemented by a 2015 performance that showcased the company’s newest star recruit Natalia Osipova as partnered by Matthew Golding (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7174 D) and then, in 2018, by another that premiered Liam Scarlett’s acclaimed brand-new production as danced by Ms. Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7256 D)

Meanwhile, the 2006 Alina Cojocaru/Federico Bonelli Sleeping beauty (Opus Arte Blu-ray box set OA BD7131 D, but see review for its release on single DVD) was joined after a rather longer than usual gap, in 2017, by a superb account from Ms. Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7234 D).  Similarly, in the case of The nutcracker, an earlier 2009 performance starring Miyako Yoshida as the sugar plum fairy and Steven McRae as the prince (Opus Arte Blu-ray box set OA BD7131 D, but see review for the DVD release) was followed by a 2016 recording showcasing Lauren Cuthbertson and Federico Bonelli (Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD7229 D).  Both are now joined by the version under review here.  

The observant reader will, of course, have already noticed that all the newest filmed Covent Garden performances of Tchaikovsky ballets star the widely acclaimed Nuñez/Muntagirov partnership.  The headline duo’s importance is quite graphically emphasised by this new disc’s presentation, for whereas the 2016 Nutcracker Blu-ray box portrayed the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince in a photograph that was not only small but also positioned on the rear cover, the new one promotes its new image of Nuñez and Muntagirov as fairy and prince boldly - and, as Donald Trump might say, bigly - to its front.

But the star dancers are not this disc’s only attraction.  One huge asset of all the recent filmed Covent Garden performances has been that they use Sir Peter Wright’s much-loved and beautifully choreographed and designed production.  In his fascinating Wrights & wrongs: my life in dance (London, revised 2018 edition), Wright offers a detailed account of how he came to conceive his own interpretation of the original 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann story The nutcracker and the mouse king and how it then developed over the years (op. cit., pp. 286-298).  He stresses how a great deal of story and character modification was necessary so as to render the original tale, made up of two very distinct and well-nigh incompatible sections, into a harmonious and theatrically satisfying whole – a laborious and costly effort that was almost undermined on the opening night in 1984 when a carelessly compiled programme not only omitted the names of the cast, the conductor and Peter Wright himself, but even included a completely different synopsis of the plot.  Another distinguishing feature of the Wright production was the extensive use of stage mechanics such as lifts and trapdoors, to introduce much a greater degree of both literal and metaphorical magic into the show. The producer’s huge success in overcoming most, if not all, of the contradictions that have bedevilled many other Nutcrackers has been confirmed by audiences’ delighted reactions over the years – not least on the evening of the performance under review where Sir Peter, brandishing his walking stick at the front stalls as he is brought onto the stage at curtain call, receives a thunderous ovation.

As already suggested, perhaps the major attraction of this new disc is its memorialisation of the Nuñez/Muntagirov partnership.  In his book, Sir Peter Wright specifies that his ideal Sugar Plum Fairy should resemble “fragile porcelain” and exhibit “presence, confidence, musicality, virtuosity, speed and expression” (op. cit., p.287).  Conversely, she ought not to be “too real” or “insufficiently regal” (ibid).  Any dancer more monarchical in the role (yet with a simultaneously winning suggestion of noblesse oblige about her) than Ms Nuñez would surely be difficult to conceive.  With an accomplished technique that is second to none, she is an ideal dancer in that role.  Meanwhile, Vadim Muntagirov’s innate refinement and elegance means that he completely inhabits – and appears entirely comfortable with - the equally one-dimensional role of the prince.  The Act 2 pas de deux is a superb example of a selfless partnership between two dancers, each at the top of their game yet still flattered by association with an equally talented artist.

Although Nuñez’s fairy and Muntagirov’s prince receive the star billing here, equally prominent are the roles of Clara and Hans-Peter (a.k.a. the nutcracker) as taken by Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Marcelino Sambé.  Traditional Nutcracker performances often give those characters nothing to do in Act 2 other than sit at the side of the stage and observe the various divertissements, but one of Peter Wright’s major innovations was to make them an integral part of the action – most memorably, perhaps, in the Russian dance, the climax of which invariably brings the house down.  Wright explains in his book how he explored several ways of portraying Clara.  At one point his preference was to cast a real child, albeit a ballet student, in the role, but after choreographing a tricky pas de deux for Clara and Hans-Peter he recognised that a more experienced dancer was required.  Anna Rose O’Sullivan may perhaps look a little too mature for the role of a child, but she certainly possesses the all-important technique.  Her stage partner Marcelino Sambé was promoted to become a Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet earlier this year. Here, his undoubted charisma and cheeky grin combine with his technical skills to make him a justified audience favourite.

The only other dancer getting a name-check on the Blu-ray disc’s front cover is Gary Avis, taking the role of Drosselmeyer.  In the age of the “Me Too Movement”, that somewhat odd character’s motivation can sometimes appear rather suspicious if not downright creepy.  One of the Peter Wright production’s major changes was, however, to offer a convincing back-story that bookends the show and demonstrates that Herr Drosselmeyer’s motives aren’t as inscrutable after all and that it’s actually quite safe to leave the children in his company.  Utterly experienced in the role – which he took in both the 2009 Yoshida/McRae and 2016 Cuthbertson/Bonelli filmings – Mr Avis dominates the stage as his character should. His skilful prestidigitation really ought to earn him honorary membership of the Magic Circle too.

As we have grown to expect, Covent Garden’s corps de ballet does everything expected of it and does it very well.  You don’t have to be a doting parent, either, to see that the enthusiastic children also acquit themselves admirably in the opening Christmas party scene (Wright takes a somewhat more jaundiced view of the Nutcracker children, by the way, making the point in his book that the number can easily be overdone).  The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House supports the performance most effectively under Barry Wordsworth’s experienced direction.  Equally expert work comes from video director Ross MacGibbon. He has been working on Covent Garden productions for many years – not least on the last occasion when this production was filmed – and knows exactly where his cameras should be positioned so that no significant detail is missed on screen.

But there is a problem.  As I watched this disc, I quickly became aware that there seemed to be an issue with the visual image – not with the original filming (which was perfect, by all accounts, when originally broadcast in a live cinema relay) but with the medium on which it has now been released.  In past ballet reviews I have occasionally mentioned the dreaded Blu-ray “judder”. Affecting a small proportion of releases, it results in a significant blurring of the image and appears, in my own observation, to occur especially when a moving camera tracks a fast laterally-moving dancer while there are static objects – usually fellow dancers – in the background.  Something similar seems to be going on with my copy of this new release, though as it also affects some shots which don’t involve fast movement it may be a slightly different phenomenon. 

Just in case I had received a rogue copy, I checked buyers’ comments on Amazon.  Reviews there for the 2009 and 2016 filmed Royal Ballet Nutcracker performances had been excellent, with an overall rating for each of 4½ stars where the maximum is 5.  The rating for this new release featuring the same production is, as I write, 2½ stars. While that mark is based on just three individual reviews so far, their breakdown is, I think, significant.  One buyer who purchased the DVD version thought it “magnificent”, reported no technical problems at all and awarded it 5 stars. What, though, brought the average assessment way down was the fact that both the other reviewers had bought the Blu-ray disc and, in spite of loving both the production and the dancing, each awarded that version just a single star.  John Graham, describing himself as “very disappointed”, reported that “the picture is very fuzzy, especially where movement is faster and also in closer shots…” Meanwhile, his fellow Blu-ray purchaser Philip Savage (“an extremely disappointed bunny”) referred to “the extremely bad recording… the picture goes fuzzy in parts, and… skips in parts causing the dancers to jump about when they shouldn’t be…”.  In fact, he found the quality to be so surprisingly bad that he speculated that perhaps he had been watching a pirated copy of the disc.

There are the makings here of a superb filmed Nutcracker that deserves to be considered one of the most attractive and desirable on the market.  Unfortunately – and quite uncharacteristically of Opus Arte releases - something seems seriously amiss with the Blu-ray incarnation that many collectors would prefer to own.  Until the problem areas are addressed, it is sadly impossible to give this release the strong commendation and, indeed, recommendation justified by the artistry of all involved on stage.

Rob Maynard

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