Goh's The Nutcracker - Pure Magic - But No Rabbits!Friday, December 16, 2011
|Recently discovered ambrotype of Tchaikovsky as a young man.|
Courtesy of Dnepropetrovsk Museum Of Music
I have a rule about ballet. This is that any ballet that features people within the ballet sitting down to watch others dance is a ballet to avoid. This rule of mine has not prevented me from seeing many (as in many) productions of The Nutcracker. Consider that as the father of two girls and their offspring, two girls, again, I have been unduly pressed.
Goh Ballet’s version which my wife and I saw last night on its opening night at The Centre In Vancouver For Performing Arts, circumvented this rather nicely by having the individual dances of the second act happen without Clara watching them. The production was one hour and fifty minutes long and it seemed a lot faster. There was not one moment where I might have yawned with boredom as a product of extreme familiarity with the goings on.
But then there is a feature of The Nutcracker that few people ever mention. And that is that the music was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And even fewer, who might have suffered through extremely tedious and long versions of the Christmas chestnut, would have known that it was premiered December 18, 1892 in St. Petersburg, on a double bill (!!) with the composer’s opera Iolanta. Let us hope that Iolanta herself was slim and sang like the goddesses.
My first awareness with The Nutcracker happened in 1972 when a Cuban friend of mine sold me an Acoustic Research amplifier in Mexico City. My friend Jorge told me, “To really listen properly to a good sound system you need a composition with lots of bells and whistles and gongs. So I have brought you my copy of Tchaikovsky’s Suite, The Nutcracker.”
It was some 8 or 9 years ago that I sat down at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with the anticipation of seeing my heroine Evely Hart dance in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I was reading my program when I noticed an insert that informed me that since Hart’s partner was sick that night she was not going to dance and someone else would take her place. I left, right then and there, in a huff. A couple of blocks away I stopped to think, “Alex, there is a very good orchestra back there about to play the wonderful music of Prokofiev. What are you doing going home? You are an idiot.” I promptly returned to enjoy the music and the ballet. My enjoyment did not prevent me from returning a few days later to see Evelyn Hart.
I feel that The Nutcracker can be seen as good music with a ballet or as a good ballet with music. Either way, repeated viewings will always reveal something fresh.
Originally I was to attend last night’s performance with my 9 year-old granddaughter Lauren. But she had to attend the last day of her Russian gymnastics class and her mother told me she absolutely had to attend her last class. I had planned to see the Goh Nutcraker through her eyes. At first I was disappointed but my wife Rosemary rose to the occasion and enjoyed the efficient briskness of this production as well as seeing so many young people dance who in other productions are usually more seasoned ballet dancers.
The Goh ballet dancers were professional and I never noted any shortcomings. The little ones never got confused and danced expertly. The Goh seems to have a very long bench as each evening’s Clara (there are four performances) is a different one.
Besides the obvious charms of Michele Wiles (the Sugarplum Fairy) and Cory Stearns (the Cavalier Prince) both principal dancers with the American Ballet Theatre, the real star of this Nutcracker is the strong performance of Damien Carriere. He plays Dr. Drosselmeyer, a very handsome Dr. and perhaps more so with a sexy eye patch. What lurks beneath his GUM Department Store Hathaway shirt?
Since Damien Carriere is a magician, illusionist and actor, his role is what keeps this Nutcracker going in a most believable way. His magic acts are just that and from beginning to end, without having to pull rabbits from hats he makes sure there is no dilly dallying in this production!
We were sitting next to my English friend (watch for his name!) Graham Walmsley who was there with his 6-year-old granddaughter Lucy. Both were delighted but Walmsley, that stiff-upper-lip kind of guy could not understand the constant clapping that seemed to drown out the beautiful music.
In the end I have to mention with a generous sprinkling of snobbishness that the real treat was the music and more so as it was played by my friends of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and directed by that Hungarian Leslie Dala. Many of these musicians are members of my favourite contemporary music orchestra, The Turning Point Ensemble. These guys can really play. I marveled at those horns and trombones and that rare item the Tchaikovsky popularized, the celeste, an instrument that in but a few seconds can transform a sunny day into a dreamy wonderland of snow. And I did hear that bass clarinet!
As Rosemary and I were approaching our parked car I noticed the smile of a man as he was about to exit a back alley. It was Jeremy Berkman, the orchestra’s trombone player. I asked him to stop and told him, “ Please send my by tonight a paragraph on the music of The Nutcracker.” He did:
Hey Alex, here it goes>
I was joking with Jim Littleford, the trumpet player and contractor for the Vancouver Opera Orchestra (the members of the orchestra performed in the pit for Goh Ballet's Nutcracker) this evening- that at the 7:30pm downbeat he shouldn't worry if we were missing anyone who had mistakenly thought the event started at 8pm as long as he could see the harpist and bass clarinetist were in the pit. My tongue was obviously firmly in cheek, but it is often the fleeting musical surprises that bring magic to a score - and for me in the Nutcracker it is the descending bass clarinet lines - and, of course, the extended harp cadenza. The beauty of these instruments can't really be appreciated on recording like they can with all the overtones ringing into the hall in live performance. I wish I could see the dancing from 15' down below in the pit, but I don't have a periscope! I know there is great dancing and hundreds of very cute kids filling the stage, but it is playing such a rich musical score that both sonically and visually fills my imagination.
Hope this works for you :)
Have a great holidays!!!
Jeremy Berkman, Trombonist and Co-Artistic Director
Turning Point Ensemble
The Sugar Plum Fairy and Crepes