Christmas is a time of hallowed traditions, and they don’t come more beloved than Nutcracker. But, like a master mechanic retooling a classic car, Peter Wright’s exquisite 1984 version for the Royal Ballet tweaks the original formula just enough to suit modern audiences – and it’s had several tune-ups since, such as sensitively amending some of Act II’s international dances. The result is a gleaming Rolls-Royce of a production, purring with majestic ease through this winter wonderland.
Its unique introduction gives Drosselmeyer a hefty personal stake in the fate of the Nutcracker, and one that magnifies this heartfelt celebration of family. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the bustling multi-generational party scene, from the antics of Fritz (I saw a perfectly brattish Logan James) through to the grandfather who levers himself out of his wheelchair to join the merriment. That detailed characterisation also makes the storytelling immediately accessible: vital for this gateway ballet.
Isabella Gasparini is a sensitive, dreamy Clara who, crucially, is open to this magical journey. She brims with feeling, and, generously partnered by James Hay (who gets his own spotlight moment when he vividly mimes their experiences), maintains her guilelessness while also maturing over the course of the second act.
That is facilitated by Clara and the Nutcracker being invited to join in the divertissements. Occasionally they pull focus, but generally it creates a welcome exchange: the youthful pair fuel the other performers, and are in turn inspired by them. Melissa Hamilton and Lukas B Brændsrød are deliciously slinky and sinuous in the Arabian dance, and, in the Russian section, Francisco Serrano and Giacomo Rovero hover excitingly during their sky-high split jumps.
Mayara Magri is an expressive Rose Fairy, though she could afford to luxuriate in the music a little more – particularly when Tchaikovsky’s score is as lushly rendered as it is here, under the sure baton of Barry Wordsworth. Conversely, Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball as, respectively, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince bring imperious, crystalline beauty to their technically precise pas de deux, but too much royal froideur. They unthaw slightly in their showboating solos. However, the most memorable performance comes from Gary Avis, whose Drosselmeyer here is a kind of Vegas magician-meets-omnipotent emcee – swirling his turquoise cloak and tossing glitter with fabulously flamboyant panache.
Julia Trevelyan Oman’s grand 19th-century storybook designs, opening with guests arriving by sled, swathed in furs, give way to an otherworldly beauty: towering fir trees and an inky sky with pinprick stars, against which the golden angels glide silently. This Nutcracker never succumbs to sickly sweetness. Instead, it’s as crisp and wondrous as the first fall of snow.
Until Jan 14. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk