The thrice postponed new production of Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker" by Mikhail Shemyakin and musical director Valery Gergiev was given its premiere on Feb. 12 at the Mariinsky Theater. Gergiev, at Shemyakin’s request, had uniquely granted him permission to redesign not only the stage sets and costumes but also the story line. The aim was to return to the phantasmagoric tale by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and strip away the cloying sweetness of Marius Petipa’s very much adapted version.
When the curtain rises, the audience is exposed at once to Shemyakin’s uncompromising vision of the grotesque. The walls of the kitchen in Legal Counselor Stahlbaum’s house are lined with animal carcasses; wild-boar, deer and pig heads look down on the stage; sausages hang from the ceiling and rats in Venetian carnival masks with excessively long noses scurry around. A Christmas tree in the shape of a woman decorates an enormous room filled with a vast number of props. But patently overwhelmed by the powerful sets, costumes, and masks, the new "Nutcracker" looks more like a showcase for visual art dominated by pantomime and farce than for dance. In good part, this is dictated by the accelerated tempi, which Valery Gergiev claims are true to the composer’s original notations, but make classical dance movements problematic.
Some of the most dramatic moments of the ballet, such as the "Growing of the Christmas Tree," which Tchaikovsky expresses musically in a strongly tragic mood, have not found an adequate choreographic solution. Additionally, Herr Drosselmeyer (Anton Adasinsky) watches the descent of a multicolored sphere that moves lower and lower until he is crushed. It is all very engaging but not what the music expresses: namely hopes, dreams and a desire to leave the world and fly.
One of the best parts is the "Snowflakes" dance. Dressed in black costumes decorated with rhinestones, they threaten Masha and the Nutcracker on their way to Konfektburg. The traditional favorites are also likely to please in the Shemyakin version. The "Waltz of the Flowers" and Masha’s and the Prince’s pas de deux are danced well by the corps de ballet and soloists Natalia Sologub and Adrian Fadeev, respectively.
Nonetheless, the fundamental flaw in this production is beyond the abilities of individual dancers to remedy. The re-thought "Nutcracker" collides with the music, which is Tchaikovsky’s and not Hoffmann’s. Tchaikovsky consciously did not follow Hoffmann. Also, parts of his score do not even sound like a sweet fairy tale. The "Dance of the Snowflakes" becomes a tragedy; the love pas de deux in the second act is about loneliness and elusive happiness; and the "Waltz of the Flowers" sounds melancholic. But nowhere is there a hint of irony or the grotesque, not surprising since neither of them belonged to Tchaikovsky’s lexicon.
If the authors of this version of "The Nutcracker" had wanted to restore Hoffmann's story, they should have found another composer. Changing the tempi does not change the intrinsic colors of the music any more than engaging a new designer changes its emotional content.
The next performances are March 10 and 31
THE MARIINSKY THEATER
1 Teatralny Pl.
Tel: (812) 114-1211