After a COVID-enforced absence in 2020, Boston Ballet’s heart-warming production of “The Nutcracker” is back at the Citizens Bank Opera House. Well, most of it is back. Because children under 12 weren’t eligible for vaccination till recently, only older Boston Ballet School students are taking part this year. That’s too bad, since the children on stage are always a treat — and an incentive — for the children in the audience. We can hope the kids will return in 2022. Meanwhile, this year’s 35 performances will give corps members as well as principals and soloists the opportunity to dance featured roles. And those performances will help support the rest of the season, since without the revenue generated by “The Nutcracker,” modern ballet as we know it would hardly exist.
Of course, without E.T.A. Hoffmann there would be no “Nutcracker,” so in a way he’s the one who’s responsible for ballet as we know it. The story told in “The Nutcracker” is inspired by Hoffmann’s 1816 novella/fairy tale “Nutcracker and Mouse King,” which is set in the German city of Nürnberg. In the Boston Ballet version, young Clara’s favorite uncle, watchmaker and magician Drosselmeier, gives her a special Christmas present, a nutcracker, and then turns it into a Nutcracker Prince. When an army of Mice invade that night and the Nutcracker is in danger, Clara distracts the attacking Mouse King with a well-aimed slipper. The Nutcracker emerges victorious, and as a reward for her bravery, Drosselmeier turns him into a real Prince who, in the second act, takes Clara to his fairy-tale kingdom to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and other wonders.
Artistic director Mikko Nissinen and designer Robert Perdziola have set the ballet in the 1820s; the place could well be Nürnberg. There’s a Dickensian dimension to the opening scene: we see a street sweeper, children begging chestnuts from a vendor, and Clara, in a powder blue coat and bonnet, buying a posy from a flower seller. When the set opens to allow well-dressed guests into her parents’ holiday party, we’re reminded that we’re entering a world of privilege.
The unavoidable absence of the Ballet School’s younger students has brought some adjustments this year. The Mice are bigger now, and there are just six of them. The Battle Scene has been simplified. There are no Sheep or Shepherdesses in Marzipan, no Chinese children with parasols in Tea. And the Mother Ginger divertissement had to be omitted altogether, since there was no way to fit eight older Polichinelles under her skirt.
This year, the part of Clara is being split between company members and older students. Boston Ballet soloist Chisako Oga had the role Friday evening, and her interpretation — a romantic young teen with a hint of mischief — was as well acted as it was danced. When her Nutcracker (Paulo Arrais) was transformed, she lit up as if she imagined him to be her first boyfriend.
Opening night was in fact ladies’ night. Soo-bin Lee’s winsome Ballerina Doll was light on the traditional robotics, but I liked her idea of a doll striving to become human. Lia Cirio was a rapt and radiant Snow Queen, Ji Young Chae a fresh, light Dew Drop with assured Italian fouettés. In Coffee, a lithe and insinuating Chyrstyn Fentroy made the upside-down split and the plank lift look like child’s play. And Viktorina Kapitonova’s Sugar Plum Fairy combined delight at having Clara as a protégée with gorgeous extension, a teasing celesta variation, and total command of her manège and her traveling fouettés.
But the men did their share. Paul Craig was the opening-night Drosselmeier in 2019, and he reprised that role Friday evening. He’s just another kid, playful and spontaneous, and he really seems to enjoy the role. Sun Woo Lee was an audience-pleasing Bear who wouldn’t let Tyson Clark lead him off stage before giving one final wave to his adoring fans. Patrick Yocum was exuberant as Snow King; in the Russian Troika, Patric Palkens flashed through his tours à la seconde at a dizzying speed. A classically strong and sturdy Lasha Khozashvili was the perfect complement to Fentroy in Coffee. And Arrais was as attentive a partner to Oga’s Clara as he was to Kapitonova’s Sugar Plum.
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Mikko Nissinen. Set and costumes: Robert Perdziola. Lighting: Mikki Kunttu. With the Boston Ballet Orchestra conducted by Mischa Santora. Presented by Boston Ballet. At: Citizens Bank Opera House, through Dec. 26. Tickets: $39-$184. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.