When the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann published his fairy tale “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” — “Nutcracker and Mouse King” — in 1816, he can hardly have imagined that, beyond entertaining children and adults alike, it would alter the future of ballet. There isn’t even any dancing in the story. What’s more, the “Nutcracker” ballet that debuted in St. Petersburg in 1892, based on Hoffmann’s tale, with a Tchaikovsky score and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, was not a success. But in the second half of the 20th century, the ballet became a Christmas season staple, and not least in Boston, where “The Nutcracker” is now as much a part of the cultural landscape as Handel’s “Messiah” and Holiday Pops.
Much of the credit for that goes to Boston Ballet, which for at least the past 30 years has been offering lavish, well-thought-out productions on a par with the rest of the company’s season. It’s hardly surprising that in its years at the Wang Center, Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” was watched by more people — as many as 150,000 in a single year — than any other version.
The current production from the company’s artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, is in its fifth year, with sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola (who also designed Boston Ballet’s current “Swan Lake”). It’s a sophisticated look: The drawing room of Clara’s parents, Herr and Frau Silberhaus, is a handsome russet brown; the Snow Scene has a forest of silver birches for a backdrop; the ballroom in the Nutcracker Prince’s kingdom evokes the grandeur of French “Sun King” Louis XIV in the style of Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Yet there’s also a social conscience to this production. The time is 1820; the place could well be Nürnberg, where Hoffmann set his story. When the curtain rises, we see street urchins begging for hot chestnuts from a vendor, and a “Charity Chap” with a tin cup. Clara is not a street urchin: She enters in a powder blue coat and bonnet and white muff and buys a posy from a poor mother and child. When the set opens to reveal the Silberhaus drawing room, with a maid, a governess, a butler, and a footman all in attendance, we’re invited into Clara’s privileged world, but the street kids are left out in the cold.
Friday at the Opera House, Beatrice Jona Affron, the company’s principal guest conductor, led a performance that was brisk verging on bland and lyric verging on lightweight. There were some arresting touches, such as the slow tempo for the middle section of Spanish, and she built the Sugar Plum pas de deux to a nice climax. But overall the reading zipped by and lacked emotional depth.
The Clara Friday was 15-year-old Delia Wada-Gill, poised and lady-like as she followed in the footsteps of her older sisters Bronwyn and Fiona. As her brother Fritz, Kao Chun had a military bearing and did some nice split kicks on his hobby horse. Sarah Wroth was maternally effusive as the Governess; Roddy Doble and Rachele Buriassi made an elegant couple as Herr and Frau Silberhaus; Marcus Romeo and Maria Alvarez were the doddering, mischievous Grandfather and Grandmother who, in the middle of the stately Grossvater Tanz, break into a polka. Irlan Silva brought a crisp energy to the Harlequin; Ji Young Chae was a superbly robotic Ballerina Doll (who, for some reason, is not called Columbine).
Eris Nezha’s comic timing was so spot-on when Drosselmeier entertained the street kids in his shop window, he threatened to steal the evening. Yet once Drosselmeier arrived at the party, he had little to do. And the Battle Scene, which has been revised repeatedly over the past 20 years, seemed to lose its way, the mice more interested in fressing than fighting. The Snow Scene that followed, however, featured an assured, rhapsodic Seo Hye Han as the Snow Queen and Paul Craig as a fresh, ardent Snow King.
The highlight of the second act, in the Nutcracker Prince’s kingdom, was Misa Kuranaga’s Sugar Plum Fairy. Kuranaga has been this production’s opening-night Sugar Plum more often than not, and watching her point her celesta variation and tease out the phrasing, it was easy to see why. Her Nutcracker Prince, Patrick Yocum, was an attentive partner, but he couldn’t match her speed or stage presence. Ashley Ellis was a regal Dew Drop, but reserved in affect and not technically secure. The other divertissements brought a smoky Arabian from Lasha Khozashvili and Lia Cirio and blazing tours à la seconde from Isaac Akiba as the lead Russian.
The best thing about Nissinen’s “Nutcracker” remains the ending. Clara used to sail home in a balloon. Now she wakes up and thinks it was all a dream — until she realizes she’s still wearing the crown the Sugar Plum Fairy gave her. Wada-Gill touched the crown, then gave her Nutcracker a radiant look of wonder.
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Mikko Nissinen. Set and costumes: Robert Perdziola. Lighting: Mikki Kunttu. With the Boston Ballet Orchestra conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron. Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, through Dec. 31. Tickets: $35-$199. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.