Greater Boston is rich in productions of “The Nutcracker,” from school and studio showcases to professional presentations. The granddaddy of them all is Boston Ballet’s version of the classic. This isn’t just another night at the ballet, but an “event,” from the moment you walk into the Opera House, grandly festooned with glittering Christmas trees and greenery, to the pre-show opportunity to grab a tiara and have your picture taken with one of your youngsters’ favorite characters, the fluffy brown bear. It’s an immediate plunge into theatrical splendor that seems to follow audiences right out the door at the ballet’s end.
But it’s hardly shallow artifice. Boston Ballet’s production, choreographed by artistic director Mikko Nissinen, consistently features spectacular dancing as well as live music by an orchestra that, under the direction of Jonathan McPhee, has developed into one of the most solid ensembles in the area. Despite a few opening night jitters, Friday night’s performance did not disappoint.
The beginning of the ballet is a little slow, more playacting than substantive dancing, as townspeople gather for a party at the Silberhaus home. Drosselmeier (a dapper, rather whimsical Paul Craig) arrives with a special toy nutcracker for young Clara (a very poised and accomplished Delia Wada-Gill). He also provides the evening’s entertainment, including Lawrence Rines, whose split jumps and jetés were impressive given the mounds of “fur” he had to navigate as the aforementioned bear. Ricardo Santos and Ji Young Chae gave sharply etched performances as Harlequin and Ballerina Doll.
Initially, Robert Perdziola’s 2012 costume and set design is elegant but realistically understated, and the staging is quite spare. But when Clara’s dream fantasy gets underway, the whole production brightens vividly, aided by a new lighting design by Mikki Kunttu and lavish costumes. The famous Christmas tree not only grows in height but widens and shimmers, setting the scene for the traditional face-off between the mice and the toy soldiers. (It’s a well-constructed scene, but I miss some of the silliness of older productions — the gingerbread boy whose arm pops off in the struggle, the Red Cross stretcher that carries away the fallen Mouse King.) The Snow Scene’s birch forest is stunning viewed through the filter of snowflakes falling over a swirling corps of dancers in gauzy white, with Ashley Ellis and Lasha Khozashvili presiding as Snow Queen and King with regal lyricism.
Most of the balletic fireworks are reserved for Act 2, when Clara and Drosselmeier arrive in the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom and its denizens present showpieces recalling dances from foreign lands. Petra Conti and Sabi Varga were standouts in the sultry, sensuous “Arabian,” with coiling limbs, luxurious extensions, pliant, undulating torsos, and breathtaking lifts. Isaac Akiba, with Albert Gordon and Samuel Zaldivar, sailed through the multiple turns and split jumps of “Russian” with joie de vivre and dazzling loft. “Pastorale” was most notable for its adorable flock of tiny sheep, danced by Boston Ballet students, who also made a high-spirited, irresistible appearance from underneath Mother Ginger’s voluminous skirt. With its twirling parasols, “Chinese” was charming, and “Spanish” was ably danced, but could have used more fire and flair.
As Dew Drop, Lia Cirio was spot on, unfurling chains of fouettés, gliding with graceful suspension. With Lauren Herfindahl and Brittany Summer, she led a tight ensemble of Flowers, but the choreography would have benefited from a little less balancing and posturing and more waltz-like flow. Misa Kuranaga and Paulo Arrais were beautifully matched as Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince. She displayed impeccable balance and delicate, pristine clarity through feathery footwork and airy leaps. Brilliant pirouettes and bourrées seemed to float on air. Arrais was an attentive, animated partner who cut loose in buoyant jumps and turns with buttery soft landings.
Nissinen’s ending makes it clear that Clara’s adventure is only a dream — so is this production.
Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker
At Boston Opera House Friday (repeats through Dec. 31). Tickets $35-$199.