For a child, there is no better introduction to the world of ballet than "The Nutcracker." It's colorful and accessible, with a child-centric story fueled by Tchaikovsky's exquisite score. And Boston Ballet's production is one of the most beloved around, marrying substantive choreography with eye-popping production values.
That said, however, the child in me found this year's go-round a little paler than I remember from my last viewing, which was before the Wang Center unceremoniously dumped the production in 2005 in favor of more commercial fare. But the disappointment has little to do with venue change. In fact, the Opera House seems generally better suited to the ballet than the cavernous Wang, and overall the production has been ably retooled. Only the Christmas tree, which is supposed to grow to amazing heights before our very eyes, seemed less magical and spectacular than in the larger space.
But what seemed a little off from seasons past is what's supposed to be at the very core of any "Nutcracker" - the choreography. As artistic director Mikko Nissinen continues to fine-tune the production for the Opera House, some of the ensemble dances, like "Waltz of the Flowers," seem pushed and fussy, lacking lyricism and musical integrity.
In fact, much of the production feels overly busy, with flurries of activity sometimes obscuring key moments in the story line. The Battle of the Toy Soldiers and Mice, choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, seemed especially chaotic and unconvincing, despite some clever touches - a mouse carried off on a stretcher, a gingerbread boy whose arm is pulled off and eaten. And some of the details and characterizations are puzzling, especially Herr Drosselmeier, portrayed Saturday night by Mindaugas Bauzy. He seems less Clara's adored godfather offering a special gift than a hired magician who gives Clara (a capable Lauren Herfindahl) the Nutcracker when no one else wants it.
But it's all quite nicely paced and Nissinen has created some lively additions, including a dazzling solo for a street urchin in the prologue and a charming Act II duet between Drosselmeier and Clara among the Polichinelles who crawl out from under the voluminous skirt of Mother Ginger. Drosselmeier dances with the giantess, but in Saturday's performance it looked like Christian Squires had a mishap with a stilt and had to just stand there - everyone covered beautifully, with only a minimal closed curtain pause to reset for the next dance.
The character dances are always the best part, and Boston Ballet's talented soloists didn't disappoint. Larissa Ponomarenko was elegantly gracious as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with spot-on timing and crystalline articulation, from the delicate beats of her feet to the brilliant fouettes and pirouettes that sent her soaring around the stage. As her Cavalier, Roman Rykine had impressive buoyancy in his leaps and buttery landings. Other stand-outs were the supple, seductive Romi Beppu and Sabi Varga in "Arabian," and Raul Salamanca, showing virtuosic flair in the flamboyant leaps, kicks, and turns of "Russian." As usual, the scores of children were adorable and the orchestra, under Mark Churchill, played Tchaikovsky's score like it's bred in their bones.