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It's at this time of year that the ballet-lover's choice starts to look a bit like Hobson's. What's it to be, Nutcracker or Nutcracker? London alone has two versions running side by side: a traditional one at the Royal Opera House, and a playful, Gerald Scarfe-designed version at the Coliseum from English National Ballet, which has kept the capital supplied with Nutcrackers every year since 1951. Last year, nationwide, there were five distinct productions to choose from; more if you count the small Russian troupes that annually hawk their more archaic fare round Britain.
So what is it about this 1892 product of the Imperial Russian court that keeps audiences coming back? Given that only a fraction of any house is likely to be first-timers, that leaves an awful lot of ticket-buyers with a serious annual craving for animated dolls, fighting rats and dancing sweets, and by no means all these people come with children. In a ballet with little by way of a story, the big draw is the music, and Tchaikovsky's score offers just less than two hours of ravishing melodies and orchestrations.
This is music of such 22-carat quality as to have remained untarnished not only by endless repetitions but also by the mucky thumbprints of the advertising industry. The distant memory of the late Frank Muir singing, 'Everyone's a fruit and nut cake,' has not, miraculously, left a permanent mark on that sparkling solo for piccolo. Nor have heavy-footed parodies by TV comics sullied the inspired pairing of celeste and bass clarinet in 'The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy'.
Musicologists have struggled to define what makes this music so special. It has none of the breadth and opulence of Tchaikovsky's scores for Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, and evidence suggests that the composer was not at all happy in the writing of it. He delayed the St Petersburg premiere by a whole year " and that was nothing to do with waiting for Christmas to come round again: performances of Nutcracker in Russia have never been particularly associated with Christmas.
The problem was " and remains " that the first half is all plot and no fantasy, and the second half all fantasy and no plot, with little character development or resolution. Act I is a slice of life from a family party where nothing much happens. Act II is a fantasy that has nothing to do with Act I.
Yet it was the effort to make these elements cohere that pushed Tchaikovsky to explore sonority as a means of making magical events distinct from the everyday. Nutcracker is chock-full of orchestral special effects, many of them used for the very first time. Some are famous " the use of celeste in connection with Sugar Plum: no one had heard that instrument before in Russia " but there are others: the wispy, wind-blown figurations that accompany 'The Waltz of the Snowflakes', fluttery frullato passages for flutes, and weird combinations of instruments (viola, trombone and tuba) that mark swoon-making moments when magic happens.
But why so many different versions of Nutcracker? Why the need to make new choreography every time the ballet is done, and why all the tinkering with the story? The simple answer is that only scraps of the original dances devised by Lev Ivanov remain. Tchaikovsky's score is all there is of the true Nutcracker of 1892. Textbooks will tell you that what you see today in the final grand pas de deux are close to those danced in 19th-century Russia, and the Royal Ballet's current production proudly claims a 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' based on later notations smuggled out of Russia in 1917.
But these are tiny islands of fact in a sea of conjecture. And it's this very mystery, the sense of never quite reaching the heart of Tchaikovsky's most magical creation, that keeps us returning to it again and again.
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