The ‘Nutcracker’ Liveth

The pendulum of popularity never seems to stop swinging, whether in politics, popular culture, or in music. A personal and timely case in point is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Back in the 90s, I admit that I grew quite weary of the tradition that has become such a part of the American holiday season. After a number of years of viewing what seemed to be a tired and worn Balanchine New York City Ballet version, some mediocre regional ones, as well as some badly filmed versions, I felt I was over it. Even the Tchaikovsky score sounded hackneyed and stale to my ears and, frankly, I longed for a seasonal replacement.

I think part of the problem I had with the Balanchine version (and the regional productions based on it) was the unabashed and unacceptable lack of theatrical logic. I felt—and still do—that if you begin with a choreographed theatrical plot then you should carry it through to the end, instead of abandoning it in Act II for showcase numbers that then lead to a dramatic dead end. Moving from the pas de deux to Clara going off, god knows where, in a magic sleigh, was just bad theatre and horribly unsatisfying.

However, three years or so ago, my Nutcracker ambivalence changed into total admiration with a viewing of the San Francisco Ballet’s current version from 2007. The performances were first rate and the set and lighting were magnificent, but I really loved that their scenario had Clara awaking from her dream in her own home, unsure whether any of what transpired could possibly have been real.

Going into this season, I took the time to listen to a number of recordings of the score and rediscovered a work that is anything but hackneyed. The construction of melodic phrases is brilliant; the depth of texture in the orchestration is as solid as in any of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Having turned my opinion around 180 degrees, I now suggest that it is easily among the top three Tchaikovsky works in terms of construction and musicality.

In most years, my change of heart might be meaningless. But in the holiday season of 2010, several others have had their say as well. It was hard to pick up a newspaper in December without reading about Nutcracker productions. In fact, the ubiquity convinced the dance critic for the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay, to have a Nutcracker marathon and visit as many productions as he could reach around the U.S. in order to investigate the phenomenon of Nutcracker productions and what they say about the country as a whole. I should also add that he stirred up quite a hornet’s nest with his review of the New York City Ballet’s production by remarking, perhaps unnecessarily, on a ballerina’s weight. The responses to the review were, needless to say, vehement. (See Macaulay’s blog pieces “The Nutcracker Chronicles” as well as his comments on Nutcracker recordings.)

Among other Nutcracker news, the New York Philharmonic offered an all-Tchaikovsky concert for its New Year’s Eve gala, including the entire Act II of the ballet. Steve Smith reviewed that concert for the Times.

I am forced to agree with Macaulay on one thing. The fact that so much time and effort went into local and national productions, concerts, recordings, and commentary, certainly indicates that we are obsessed with The Nutcracker in ways that are both good and bad, sweet and sour. As for me, I’ll stow those recordings back on the shelf for while until, once again, I have to feed the Sugar Plum habit.

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