If variety is the spice of life, then the multiple iterations of "The Nutcracker" crafted over the years could be seen as a variety of holiday spice drops: they vary in taste and color, but are generally reminiscent of the same experience no matter which ones are enjoyed. The Berlin State Ballet's (Staatsballett Berlin) production of the Christmastime fantasy takes the traditional components of the production and discovers some new flavors and shades within, working novel arrangements and creative decisions into a close adherence to Tchaikovsky's renowned music and the customary two-act structure. While wonderfully danced against beautifully rendered set designs, this Nutcracker's deviations from the norm can be hit and miss, with erratic costume choices and an fondness for having too many performers on the stage pulling down what's otherwise a fine classical rendition of the tale. Bel Air Classiques have presented a high-definition recording of the production's performance from December, 2014 at the Duetsch Oper Berlin.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Rat King", the ballet tells the time-honored story of a raucous Christmas party that transcends into the realm of dreams. After adults decorate the tree and disperse toys to children, local bigwig and toymaker Drosselmeyer, played here by Michael Banzhaf, introduces his substantial contribution to the evening's events: several large, realistic mechanical dolls who dance for the children. After the show's over, Drosselmeyer also offers up a wooden nutcracker, which his goddaughter, Clara, cherishes and her brother, Fritz, mishandles. Worried for the nutcracker's safety after everyone's gone to bed, Clara returns to its resting place, only to find that large mice have invaded the home. Thus, the events of "The Nutcracker" blur the lines separating reality and fantasy, transforming rodents and toy soldiers into combatants that surround Clara and her nutcracker, who also comes to life. After the battle, the pair embark on a joyous, surreal journey through this dreamscape.
With stage designs inspired by historical concept sketches and conductor Robert Reimer keeping Tchaikovsky's music flowing at a stable, entrancing tempo, the Berlin State Ballet's production draws the audience into the lingering magic of this Christmas eve with handsome sensory value. Michael Banzhaf strikes an early chord as the mysterious Drosselmeyer, whose dramatic poise assists the narrative's transition into otherworldly territory as his character's creations sputter to life with a few twists of the key. Costumes were also inspired by historical sketches, but there's a disjointed boldness about some of the garments and props that distract from the delights of the first act's relative normality, from clothes that seem like they're from disparate time periods to mice carrying around fruits of contradictory sizes (including an apparently lethal bunch of grapes). The choreography also tends to be somewhat overambitious with the number of dancers onstage at once, distracting the eyes with too much commotion and too many openings for out-of-sync moments. None of these issues distract from the refined dancing involved though, especially the gracefulness of Elena Isaki's young Clara.
Naturally, the second act of "The Nutcracker" kicks the mythical aesthetics into gear as adult forms of Clara and her nutcracker prince traverse the Christmas wonderlands, which is lighter on narrative and heavier on pure performance value. Foggy blue expanses and a gorgeous snowy forest provide ample backdrops for angels and snowflakes alike, with some costumes adorned with unique orb-adorned crowns that accentuate the icy effect of their garments. This segment tends to be all about transportation, both of the young pair to their destination and the audience into this wintry slumber, a gap that's bridged wonderfully here. Iana Salenko commands quite a presence as Clara, whose strong frame and fierce angles never allow one's attention to stray. Her partner, Marian Walter, garners less magnetism but lacks not for breathtaking skill, effortlessly executing his fluttering jumps and extensions while elevating the object of the audience's attention.
Despite a conventional structure on the surface, the Berlin State Ballet also explores divergent artistic choices throughout the patchwork of cultures in the latter portion of "The Nutcracker", amid the The Land of Sweets, involving some rearrangement of the dance order and the characters performing the numbers. That includes an equal number of men and women "flowers" twirling around a large stage prop in the Golden Waltz, the Arabian Dance consisting of a solo elegant male dancer with his four "supporting" women, and golden jesters with hoop props at the center of the Russian dance. Choreographers Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka ensure that these differentiations flow together well with traditional takes on the other segments -- such as a brisk rendition of the Chinese Tea Dance and the vibrant children surrounding Mother Ginger -- forming into a whimsical, lovely, if sleepily-paced rendition of the young couple's fanciful celebration. It lacks some of the time-honored enchantment one might wish for out of "The Nutcracker", but the distinctiveness of its flair should earn it some consideration amid the variety.
Video and Audio:
The Berlin State Ballet's performance of "The Nutcracker" twirls onto Blu-ray from Bel Air in a 1.78:1-framed, 1080i AVC digital transfer, whose strengths lie in the innate vividness of its palette and the constant stability of the image. Skin tones are warm and natural throughout, while the disc's grasp on color allows for makeup fluctuations to be pronounced as well. Prominent shades in fruit and on the nutcracker, the gradation of blues in the winter wonderland, and the plethora of colors throughout The Land of Sweets -- gold and purple; dark red and bright green; supple white and muted blue -- all look splendid. Depth also comes through rather well in the transfer, enhancing the dimensionality of the set and the perspective on the dancers in the front and back of the stage, while contrast is always solid. The lack of 1080p resolution does produce some jittery movement, though, weakening the flow of their dancing, and there's plenty of digital/compression noise to be found around tighter textures and during darker sequences. Despite the limitations, it's a suitable representation of the experience.
The audio track comes in a pair of options: 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2-channel PCM. The Master Audio track finds its core strengths in replicating the subtleties of the live viewing experience, making one feel close to an actual stage performance: the subtle sizzle of bulbs for explosions, the jingle of jester bells as dancers move about, and the persistent and organic sound of echoic feet upon the stage. There are some surround elements, but they're subtle and largely go towards enhancing the natural spread of sound from the front of the stage. That includes the strong presence of clapping, which come out strong and clear at all times, trailing to the back while it fades out. Most importantly, however, Tchaikovsky's music sounds exceptionally well-balanced and aware of a wealth of midrange clarity, deftly projecting the strums of stringed instruments and the subtle rattle of the woodwind section. Everything sounds restrained, a step away from the realism of actually being there, and that's a strong compliment to the presentation.
A robust Scene Selection is available in the menu, while a Booklet contains general information about the story, the production, and the recording itself. So, very little.
The Berlin State Ballet have put on a suitable rendition of "The Nutcracker", as presented here by Bel Air Classiques, with brassy production design and choreography that blends together traditional and inventive ideas. Even considering its strengths, however, there's something missing in how the entire performance comes together, seeming overambitious in its usage of people onstage and enjoying both ups and downs with its costume selections. The dancing itself ranges from enjoyable to enthralling, though, and those stronger moments of performance value tower over the middle-of-the-road aesthetic splendor. Bel Air's Blu-ray could've used an uptick in digital clarity and resolution to 1080p, but it looks fine and sounds natural here. Recommended.