The Nutcracker
Saturday, December 2, 2017 at 7:36PM
Henry McFadyen Jr. in Ballet, Opus Arte

The Nutcracker ballet. Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov. Directed 2016 by Peter Wright.

Stars Gary Avis (Drosselmeyer); Francesca Hayward (Clara, Drosselmeyer's god-daughter); Alexander Campbell (Hans-Peter/The Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer's nephew), and:

In addition, artists of The Royal Ballet and students of the Royal Ballet School portray Snowflakes, Relatives, Friend's of Stahlbaum family, Soldiers, Mice, Servants, Children and other roles.

Boris Gruzin conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (Concert Master Peter Manning) and the London Oratory Junior Choir (Choir Director Charles Cole). Designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman; lighting by Mark Henderson; production consultant was Rolan John Wiley; staging by Christopher Carr; ballet mistress was Samantha Raine; ballet master was Jonathan Howells; assistant ballet mistress was Sian Murphy; principal coaching by Christopher Carr, Jonahtan Cope, Viviana Durante, and Jonathan Howells; Benesh notators were Mayumi Hotta and Lorraine Gregory. Directed for screen by Ross McGibbon. Released 2017, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: B

I did a detailed review of this same production (with an earlier set of star dancers) in 2013. I gave it a B and declared it not competitive with stronger competition. I went on to say, "The Peter Wright production could be competitive again if the Royal Ballet would revive it with (1) new sets and costumes, (2) drill the female corps more thoroughly, (3) write new divertissement dances, and (4) make a clean, bright video." Now we have our revival, so let's see how the Royal Ballet has done by The Nutcracker between 2009 and 2016. 

At the outset I'll say that the choreography, sets, and costumes are basically identical in 2009 and 2016 except that in Act 2 the 4 rather insipid Chinese dancers from 2009 are reduced to 2 in 2016.  Now let's look at 7 screenshots from the 2016 Act 1 showing the Stahlbaums' party and Clara's dream. For each of these 7 shots there is a doppelgänger in the 2009 review for you to compare if you like.

In 2016, Clara is danced by the warmly brunette Francesca Hayward and her friend is portrayed by Benjamin Ella:

Clara's mom (Elisabeth McGorian), dad (Christopher Saunders), and grandfather (Alastair Marriott) are the same:

Gary Avis is the same splendid Drosselmeyer:

And the dream battle upfolds the same. If you compare these 7 shots from 2009 and 2016, you can clearly see that MacGibbon has better cameras in 2016 than before. The 2016 images are sharper and MacGibbon was able to get better color even in the dark scenes. The generally "washed out" look from 2009 is gone.  In my 2009 viewing, I complained that the costumes looked old and worn. Now I see that my criticism of the costumes arose in part because the 2009 cameras generally were not able to make pretty images of them. Another difference between 2009 and 2016 is that MacGibbon in 2016 generally increased the range of his camera views throughout. He was able to do this, of course, thanks to the greater resolution available from the 2016 gear. So this time the ROB has produced the "clean, bright video" I asked for.

Hans Peter is free! Compare this next 2016 image to the same shot in 2009 for further proof that MacGibbon in 2016 was trying for more full stage shots than before:

Now compare this Land of Snow shot to the similar shot in 2009. The improvement in clarity is startling:

Most of Act 2 takes place in the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets.  The female corps dances in 2016 with more precision than in 2006.

But the divertissement country dances continue to be an grave embarrassment for the ROB:

In 2006 the Arabian girl was too fat (Laura McCullock); in 2016, she's too lean (Itziar Mendizabal):

The Russian dance is unimaginative and boring:

But Yuhui Choe is pretty as the Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers:

All 7 screenshots shown so far from Act 2 take place in front of the Garden of Sweets set. As the years go by, this set looks increasing tacky to me with all that glitter. Clever lighting is used to keep it from looking too monotonous:

At this point I should report that the playing of the ROH Orchestra seems especially vivid and well recorded here. Finally, I did a ballet Wonk Worksheet to see how MacGibbon's video content fares under our standards for modern Blu-ray ballet recordings. Overall his statistics are lackluster with a too-fast pace of 8.75 seconds per clip and only 68% of the shots showing the full bodies of the dancers. In Act 2, which has more formal dancing and less narrative content than Act 1, MacGibbon did achieve a slower pace of 11 seconds per chip. (I didn't try to run the numbers on the 2006 show---I'm pretty sure they would be dismal because MacGibbon in 2006 was shooting closer to the action than in 2016.)

I conclude that the 2016 Nutcracker is clearly stronger than the 2006 version with a much prettier video, better corps dancing, and more vivid sound. But the sets and costumes are the same and the divertissement dances are sadly obsolete. A distinct element of DVDitis remains in MacGibbon's video content. And after the ROB made their 1st video of the Peter Wright production in 2006, 3 other strong and fresher Nutcrackers entered the market made in Amsterdam, Vienna, and Berlin. So I'll give subject 2016 version another B (the 2006 Peter Wright disc should be marked down now to a C, but I will leave it at a B also).

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