The Nutcracker, Ballet by Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky
Even if this season’s production of The Nutcracker at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma is the first time you go to see and hear Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final ballet, much of its music will be instantly recognisable. From the “Children’s Gallop and Entry of the Parents” to the “Waltz of the Flowers” and the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, to name just three of the tableaux in this wonderful work, Tchaikovsky’s genius for composition, as much as that of any of the creative giants of the nineteenth century, has found a way to enter our consciousness irrespective of our knowledge of genres or cultural movements.
Yet The Nutcracker, nowadays a perennial favourite during the festive period, was deemed a failure at its premiere when it was coupled with the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta on 18 December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Maybe the reaction of the audience owed something to the fact that the original choreography was not the sole conception of Marius Petipa who, having fallen ill, charged his assistant, Lev Ivanov, with the ballet’s completion; however, an indifferent opening night often seems to be the price that the most enduring works have to pay for their place in the repertory.
The libretto for The Nutcracker, also written by Petipa, was based on an Alexandre Dumas adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale, Nutcracker and Mouse King. It is Christmas Eve and the Stahlbaum family’s celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Drosselmeyer and his collection of marvellous wind-up toys. After everyone else has gone to bed, young Clara Stahlbaum’s favourite gift, a wooden nutcracker dressed in a soldier’s uniform, comes to life. Together they defeat the hordes of mice led by the Mouse King. Her reward for helping the Nutcracker, who has now become a handsome prince, is to be taken to the Land of Sweets where she is fêted and entertained by a series of fantastic dances performed by a host of magical characters.
Hoffmann, in common with his fellow romantics, championed the power of the imagination over the rational. Like so many fairy tales, there is both light and dark in the plot of Nutcracker and Mouse King and although Tchaikovsky’s ballet is eminently suitable for children, the composer did not shy away from writing a score that contains themes that contrast greatly with one another. The music is at times urgent, at others serene and mysterious. The Nutcracker asks us to both cherish and delight in the beauty of the world around us while keeping alert to the forces that would destroy it.