With Christmas fast approaching I decided it was high time I watched the quintessential Christmas ballet: Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, which was first performed in St. Petersburg in December 1892.
I elected to watch the 1993 Warner Brothers film version, and I rather suspect that this was a mistake. Although the narration did make the plot easier to follow I felt it somehow lacked the magic of a stage performance, even one watched on a computer screen, and I fail utterly to see the point of featuring Macaulay Culkin as The Nutcracker/Drosselmeier’s nephew, beyond the fact that in 1993 his was a highly bankable name. Plus the version on Youtube was missing a five minute segment beginning part-way through the Dance of the Snowflakes which took out most of the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy (which even I know is basically the signature dance of the entire ballet) and made for a rather rough transition from the enchanted forest to the Land of Sweets.
But after a brief detour to another version to fill in the missing segment I took a deep breath and kept watching, and was very glad I did because the second act, with all the different sweets dancing for the children, was definitely my favourite.
The narration does help with the finer points of the plot, as it isn’t always immediately obvious exactly what each character is supposed to be or represent.
It’s Christmas Eve, and at the Stahlbaum Home family and friends are gathering for a party. The two Stahlbaum children, Marie (in this version; Clara in others) and her younger brother Fritz, are excited, especially when Herr Drosselmeyer, who is Clara’s godfather, and Drosselmeyer’s nephew arrive, bringing gifts including four amazing dolls which delight the children with their dancing. Finally he presents them with a wooden nutcracker in the shape of a soldier. Marie is enchanted by it, but Fritz snatches it from her and, in the ensuing tussle, the nutcracker is broken. Drosselmeyer bandages it up, but late that night Marie sneaks down to the parlour to check on it.
Now, does Marie fall asleep and dream the subsequent events, or is it Christmas magic? As the clock strikes twelve the tree seems to grow to dizzying heights, or perhaps Marie shrinks, and an army of mice, led by their king, attack the gingerbread men who, led by the nutcracker, which has come to life and looks remarkably like Drosselmeyer’s nephew (whom Marie rather fancies), fight back.
The mice are swiftly vanquished, and the nutcracker takes Marie away to an enchanted forest, where the snowflakes dance for them and the nutcracker is returned to his true form, that of a prince. Following this, they travel to the Prince’s kingdom, the Land of Sweets, which the Sugar Plum Fairy has been ruling for him until he returns. The Prince tells her of his adventures, and the Sugar Plum Fairy orders a feast and dancing for the children. One by one all the people of the kingdom dance: chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and so on until the final dance is performed by the little flowers, led by Fairy Dewdrop. Finally the prince and Marie depart in a sleigh pulled by reindeer (I found this ending somewhat unsatisfactory, but perhaps the whole idea was to leave it unclear whether it was a dream or real magic).
Tchaikovsky, who I really must do a profile on at some point, was a gifted composer (who I really must profile at some point), and a great deal of the music from The Nutcracker is instantly recognisable – real ‘soundtrack of Christmas’ stuff. I fully intend to watch a stage version of The Nutcracker at some point, as I’m fairly certain I’ll enjoy it more.
Is there a version that you’d recommend?