The 2004 San Francisco Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker - and Opus Arte's excellent Blu-ray edition - is an ideal introduction for those new and perhaps a bit leery of the classical dance form, and it's especially apropos at this time of year. I must confess that, up to now, my exposure to ballet had been limited to short snippets on television while channel surfing and ballet sequences in movies like The Red Shoes and Invitation to the Dance. But I was already familiar with Tchaikovsky's wonderful music (like many, after seeing Disney's Fantasia as a child), and there was another incentive in snapping this up from our unloved screener pile: it's a Blu-ray I hope to share with my two-year-old once she's old enough to enjoy it.
In just about every way, this Nutcracker is eminently accessible and delightful, at times quite magical. The high-definition image is superb - practically every falling snowflake is discernable - and the exceptional audio adds to the You-Are-There atmosphere. This is a title to rush right out to rent or buy so you can enjoy it with the family over the holidays.
Suggested by E.T.A. Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the fairy-tale ballet's locale has to good effect been shifted from Tchaikovsky's mid-19th century Germany to San Francisco around 1915. At a lavish Christmas Eve party teenager Clara (Elizabeth Powell) is presented with a toy nutcracker, here dressed as a Civil War soldier, by her mysterious godfather, Uncle Drosselmeyer (Damien Smith). That night, Clara dreams she has been reduced to about a foot in height by her magician Uncle. The Christmas toys under the tree come to life, including the handsome Nutcracker Prince (Davit Karapetyan), along with an invading army of mice.
As helpfully noted in the Blu-ray's full-color booklet, director/choreographer Helgi Tomasson's aim in shifting the locale was to make the ballet more recognizable, more identifiable to the point where it becomes almost a tribute to San Francisco itself. (The overture even features historical photos of the city projected slide show style on the ornate stage curtain.) The carefully researched set design and costumes accurately reflect the period, while the ballet's second act - in other versions usually done as a kind of sugary Candy Land fantasy - here in both the sets and costumes have been patterned after San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition, the World's Fair, of 1915. This is not only dramatically justified - Clara's dream being based on a local event - but it also explains the presence of Nutcracker's varied set pieces: the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and Russian dancers, for instance.
This was the San Francisco Ballet's most ambitious production to date, and visually it's quite spectacular. As the booklet points out, the 1915 San Francisco setting had another advantage over the mid-19th century German one: the city's electric lights, which here are used to great advantage, dimly lighting a city street of Victorian row houses, the expansive living room where the Christmas party is held, etc.
When Clara is shrunk in size the entire ballroom set transforms before the audience's eyes - even the Christmas tree seems to grow to gigantic proportions - it's a really magical moment.
As a ballet neophyte, I was surprised how little dancing (in the expected sense) there is during Nutcracker's first act, especially the first half-hour, which is mostly pantomimed with fluid, dance-like movements. I found the buildup to the parade of ballet showpieces in the second act highly effective. (The first act does include a sequence where Drosselmeyer unveils a human-sized Harlequin and Columbine, who come to life and dance for the partygoers. Undoubtedly this was the direct inspiration for the doll-dancing climax of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes.)
The choreography is lovely and often quite lively throughout. Powell, who has the poise of a young Audrey Hepburn, is charming. The audience responded enthusiastically to the athletic Russian dancers, but the Arabian and Chinese vignettes that preceded it were equally effective (Chinese dragon, snake-like Genie). I especially enjoyed the Waltz of the Snowflakes; the dancing is beautiful, and the high-definition video really comes alive here.
Video & Audio
Filmed in high-definition video at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, edited from performances on December 19 and 21, 2007, Nutcracker is a stunner, with all the subtle and vibrant colors and lighting nuances of the stage production captured to best possible advantage. I was surprised to learn this was a 1080i BD50 because it looks flawless. The PCM 5.0 surround stereo is equally impressive, as if positioning the viewer right in front of the orchestra pit. An excellent PCM 2.0 mix is also included. The packaging lists a running time of 133 minutes, but the show itself runs 94, including the overture and curtain calls at the end. The disc is all-region, and the extra features include optional subtitles in French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
The supplements, all in 1080i high-def, are also quite good. Besides the full-color booklet/program, with essays about the production in English, French, and German, there are high-def interviews with director-choreographer Helgi Tomasson, scenic designer Michael Yeargan, and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, all interesting. There's a spoken synopsis, illustrated with frame grabs from the production, running about five minutes, and a brief cast gallery. Finally, there's a 10-minute documentary about the 1915 World's Fair/Pan-Pacific Exposition that's interesting and informative. All good stuff.
This Blu-ray disc is enthusiastically recommended, especially for audiences drawn to Nutcracker's music but new to the world of ballet. It's perfect holiday viewing and a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.