After a forced absence by COVID in 2020, the Boston Ballet’s heartwarming production of “The Nutcracker” is back at Citizens Bank Opera House. Well, most of them are back. Because children under 12 were not eligible for the vaccination until recently, only older students at Boston Ballet School are participating this year. It’s a shame, because the kids on stage are always a treat – and an incentive – for the kids in the audience. We can hope that the kids will return in 2022. Meanwhile, this year’s 35 performances will give corps members as well as principals and soloists the opportunity to dance in star roles. And these performances will help sustain the rest of the season, because without the income generated by “The Nutcracker”, modern ballet as we know it would hardly exist.
Of course, without ETA Hoffmann there would be no “The Nutcracker”, so in a way he is responsible for the ballet as we know it. The story told in “The Nutcracker” is inspired by Hoffmann’s 1816 short story / fairy tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, which takes place in the German city of Nuremberg. In the Boston Ballet’s version, young Clara’s uncle, favorite watchmaker and magician, Drosselmeier, gives her a special Christmas present, a nutcracker, and then turns him into a nutcracker prince. When an army of mice invades that night and the Nutcracker is in danger, Clara distracts the Mouse King who attacks her with a well-targeted slipper. The Nutcracker emerges victorious, and as a reward for his bravery, Drosselmeier transforms him into a true prince who, in the second act, takes Clara to her fairytale kingdom to meet the fairy Sugar Plum and other wonders.
Artistic director Mikko Nissinen and designer Robert Perdziola staged the ballet in the 1820s; the place might just be NÃ¼rnberg. There is a Dickensian dimension to the opening scene: we see a street sweeper, children begging chestnuts from a merchant, and Clara, in a powder blue coat and cap, buying a bouquet from a flower merchant. When the set opens up for well-dressed guests to participate in her parents’ holiday party, it reminds us that we are entering a world of privilege.
The inevitable absence of the youngest students from the Ballet School has made some adjustments this year. The mice are bigger now, and there are only six. The battle scene has been simplified. There are no marzipan sheep or shepherdesses, no Chinese children with umbrellas in the tea room. And the Mother Ginger entertainment had to be omitted altogether, as there was no way to slide eight older Polichinelles under her skirt.
This year Clara’s share is shared between company members and older students. Boston Ballet soloist Chisako Oga had the role on Friday night, and her portrayal – a romantic young teenager with a hint of mischief – was performed as well as danced. When her Nutcracker (Paulo Arrais) transformed, she lit up as if imagining him to be her first boyfriend.
Opening night was actually Ladies Night. Soo-bin Lee’s alluring Ballerina Doll was light on traditional robotics, but I liked her idea of ââa doll striving to become human. Lia Cirio was a delighted and radiant Snow Queen, Ji Young Chae a fresh and light Dew Drop with assured Italian whips. In Coffee, a supple and insinuating Chyrstyn Fentroy made the upside down split and plank lift a snap. And Viktorina Kapitonova’s Sugar Plum Fairy combined the thrill of having Clara as a shield with a gorgeous extension, teasing celesta variation, and total mastery of her ride and travel whips.
But the men have done their part. Paul Craig was the 2019 opening night Drosselmeier, and he took over that role on Friday night. He’s just another kid, playful and spontaneous, and he seems to really enjoy the role. Sun Woo Lee was an audience-pleasing bear who wouldn’t let Tyson Clark lead him off the stage before giving a final wave to his beloved fans. Patrick Yocum was exuberant as Snow King; in the Russian Troika, Patric Palkens covered his laps per second at breakneck speed. A classically strong and robust Lasha Khozashvili was the perfect complement to Fentroy in Coffee. And Arrais was as attentive a partner to Oga’s Clara as he was to Kapitonova’s Sugar Plum.
Music by Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Mikko Nissinen. Sets and costumes: Robert Perdziola. Lighting: Mikki Kunttu. With the Boston Ballet Orchestra conducted by Mischa Santora. Presented by the Boston Ballet. At: Citizens Bank Opera House, until December 26. Tickets: $ 39 to $ 184. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org.
Jeffrey Gantz can be contacted at [email protected]