The Nutcracker (Complete Ballet)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

Kirov Ballet & Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

Viktor Baranov - Nutcracker / Prince
Larisa Lezhnina - Masha / Princess

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

About the Performance

In this 1994 video, Viktor Fedotov conducts the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) in a live performance of the traditional Russian version of The Nutcracker, featuring Larissa Lezhnina, Viktor Baranov, and the Kirov’s renowned corps de ballet. Despite shortcomings in video quality, and despite the need to explain what the Russian Nutcracker is and is not, this is among the best productions available to home viewers.

So, then, what is a traditional Russian Nutcracker? First, we need to look at the original libretto Tchaikovsky set to music for ballet master Marius Petipa’s 1892 staging of The Nutcracker, which nobody nowadays seems to follow.

In it, the Stahlbaum family is hosting a Christmas Eve party, at which their daughter Masha (the Russian diminutive of Maria) is given a nutcracker doll by her godfather Drosselmeyer, a toymaker and magician. After bedtime, Masha sneaks downstairs to check on the doll. The clock strikes midnight, Drosselmeyer appears, threatening mice come out of the woodwork, the tree grows to enormous heights as the Mouse King emerges in his evil glory, and the nutcracker – grown to life size – leads his soldiers into the fight.

To help protect her endangered nutcracker, Masha throws her shoe at the Mouse King, distracting him and enabling the nutcracker to stab the wicked ruler and force his minions to retreat. Then the nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince, who leads Masha through a forest of snowflakes before transporting her to his kingdom, the Land of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier have been ruling in the prince’s absence.

In Masha’s honor, a worldwide celebration of sweets ensues, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier dance, a final waltz is performed by all the sweets, and Masha and the prince are crowned rulers of the kingdom. The ballet’s closing apotheosis, as one translation of the libretto says, “represents a large beehive with flying bees, closely guarding their riches.” The end. Masha doesn’t go back home, but stays in her new kingdom.

In a 1919 revival of The Nutcracker, Russian choreographer Alexander Gorsky (the same choreographer who inserted the jester into Swan Lake) came up with the idea of turning the fantasy scenes of Act II into a dream from which Masha awakens and returns home, instead of making the Land of Sweets her final destination. Gorsky also eliminated the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier and gave their dances to Masha and the Nutcracker Prince, who were played by adults instead of children – thus introducing a romantic element not part of the 1892 original.

In 1934, Vasily Vainonen, who set out the choreography for the Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers, included a puppet show staged by Drosselmeyer during the Christmas Party. The puppet show foreshadows the later fantasy scenes by having a prince, a princess, and a Mouse King as characters.

Thus the “traditional” Russian Nutcracker came to be. And it is this version that Fedotov and the Kirov present almost flawlessly.

The dancing is superior throughout. The rising of the Mouse King from what appears to be the depths of Hades is impressively frightful, as is the battle that ensues. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is delightful. The Waltz of the Flowers, with its delicate pastel coloring and stately tempo, is the highlight it should be and becomes more impressive with each viewing. Also charming is the Dance of the Mirlitons, performed by three Vaganova Dance School students.

If Lezhnina is too clearly a grown woman to be entirely convincing as the young girl of Act I, she compensates with strong acting abilities (even if she might have benefited from more practice at accurately throwing a pointe shoe). In Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s absence isn’t detrimental because Lezhnina’s performance fills the void. Her execution of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is as good as you’ll see anyone do it.

To compensate for the less-than-stellar video quality, the orchestral sound is clear and rich and full and merits special mention, rounding out an altogether praiseworthy performance whose significant shortcomings involve technical issues of DVD manufacture. I’d still like to see a performance that sticks to the original libretto, but the Kirov’s Nutcracker remains a winner.

– Jeff Wolf, reviewer (2014)