Vienna’s New Nutcracker
A new production of Rudolf Nureyev’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s classic at the Staatsoper with a fin-de-siècle set, a child army, and fake moustaches; plus: a guide to opera etiquette for kids
At the Vienna State Opera, Liudmila Konavlova as Clara holds the nutcracker, surrounded by the giant heads of the grown-ups | Photo: Wiener Staatsoper
Snowflakes descend from the rafters to close the first act of the Nutcracker | Photo: Wiener Staatsoper
Every child should see The Nutcracker at least once. But if you want her to remember and him to treasure the occasion, best to be very careful which Nutcracker you choose.
Thus the new Nutcracker at Vienna State Opera is not a bad choice. It’s a Russian version, from Rudolf Nureyev, one of his first grand evening ballets in the West. The costumes are very traditional and very Russian: fancy officers’ uniforms, the grand gowns of the 19th century. The soldiers are Napoleonic and numerous, there are Hussars on horses (well, convincing enough). The decorations are as rich as the costumes, with photorealistic drawing rooms and massive grandfather clocks.
A realistic fairy tale
Despite his own fame as a dancer, what’s special in Nureyev’s Nutcracker is the stagecraft. Avoiding the metaphoric or symbolic approach of someone like Yuri Grigorovich and other more recent Nutcracker revisionists, Nureyev treated it like a realistic fairy tale, full of plot and visual effects as in a Hollywood film.
Particularly charming are all the children. There are dozens of them in the ballroom scene playing the soldier army. Seeing so many other children on stage will surely delight the ones in the audience. In the end, the stage is just as much a mirror for children as it is for us, the grownups. Overall, it’s a great scene, with partygoers evoking all the decadence of fin-de-siècle Russia. The Staatsoper men look splendid in their fake moustaches (some should consider growing them!) and Gabor Oberegger and Franziska Wallner-Hollinek were the perfect hosts of the family Christmas.
Born to Vienna high society in real life, the very beautiful Wallner-Hollinek has just the right aristocratic nose, height and noble bearing. The artifice of her Viennese charm perhaps lacks a certain Russian frankness, but aristocrats are aristocrats. The lively interaction between partygoers is captivating, occasionally even distracting us from the core action.
From here the first act takes off in one plot event after another. The party ends, the Nutcracker soldier is broken by brother Fritz, the rats arrive and are defeated in hand to hand combat. The Rat King returns with reinforcements and they kill a legion of toy soldiers. Clara is surrounded and barely gets away before Drosselmeyer, dressed as the prince, comes to her rescue. Spectacular snowflakes in titanium and silver descend from the rafters and bring the first act to a triumphant close.
The second act is completely different: All dance and no plot, in one extended dream sequence with variation after variation, a relentless sequence of pas de deux. After that it’s Spanish, Arabian, Russian, Chinese and pastoral variations until you think you can’t stand another jeté. You might want to take the kids home at the end of Act I, as even many adults won’t have the patience for the second.
And what of the dancing?
As a young dancer now in his prime, Vladimir Shishov switched between the old Drosselmeyer and the Prince with great grace, the perfect age to act both parts convincingly. He’s also strong enough and large enough to easily lift ballerinas of any girth.
Davide Dato and Emilia Baranowicz make a delightful Fritz and Luisa and return to dance the Spanish dance convincingly. Baranowicz has an easy charm on stage and Dato has a sweet, if a bit cloying, boyishness, which suits the role of Fritz.
Out of the variations, Ketevan Papava and Eno Peci’s comic Arabic duet stood out, combining just the right amount of mystery with humour. Georgian beauty Papava helps pickpocket Peci nick the purse of their master Christoph Wenzel, before they run off with his money, delighted in their own subterfuge.
Legris gave the role of Clara to Liudmila Konovalova, one of his recruits from Vladimir Malakhov’s Berlin Staatsballett. Nominally Konovalova is a powerful and physical dancer with great technique, and is better suited to this role than any other I’ve seen her in. But while her round face is quite child-like, her sulky petulance is not entirely Clara. As physically capable as she is, hard and brassy is not charming in a ballerina: She comes across as Tanya Harding in pointe shoes.
Be on the lookout instead for Maria Yakovleva’s performances on 23 and 25 December, or even Natalie Kusch on 26 October. Finally, Ludmila Konavlova will be performing on 27 and 28 December.
Vienna State Opera
1., Opernring 2
Three hints for kids at The Nutcracker:
1. Arrive on time so the child has time to get used to the environment, can take his or her own seat, and must not sit at the back of the auditorium.
2. Buy tickets as close to the stage as possible. Children have no conception of choreographic formation and no reason to have one. They want to experience the ballet and not see it from a distance.
3. Consider leaving after the first act of The Nutcracker. The first act is very lively and full of toys and action and plot. The second act just sort of drones on and on with endless pas de deux and huge dance scenes.