One can usually count on Boston Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker for a number of things: Elaborate, shifting sets. Full-size toys topped by a frisky, leaping bear. A beaming Clara (played on Friday’s opening night with childish wonder by Delia Wada-Gill), who falls asleep on Christmas Eve to a dream-like adventure.
Audiences share that adventure in Boston Ballet’s premier version of the holiday classic, which keeps the Opera House busy with performances through New Year’s Eve. Yet even since the company revamped The Nutcracker in 2012 with new sets and costuming by Robert Perdziola, one can also count on little things being tweaked each year, via Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen’s choreography or individual dancers’ personal touches. On Friday, the party scene featured graceful dancing by performers both old and young (more than 200 Boston Ballet School students have parts) and this year’s production particularly favors streamlined strokes to engage the kids.
Mice froze in playful poses as they popped into view, one sticking out his rear end. And the battle scene was less menacing than in past versions, with the Mouse King taking an obvious turn in his death dance to reveal that the Nutcracker’s sword was merely stuck under his arm. And the sets literally had a fresh glow thanks to award-winning Finnish lighting designer Mikki Kunttu, including a birch forest where the snowflakes even sparkled like fireflies, although there was so much magic snow on Friday that it started to obscure the dancers.
This year’s Nutcracker actually slides by rather effortlessly in about two hours (including intermission), quickly moving to the second act where the major dances take place, usually to the delight of adults more than children. Those dances in the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom include some ethnically stereotyped characters – and recurring veterans on Friday in the muscular Sabi Varga (with the thin, supple Petra Conti as his standout Arabian partner) and Isaac Akiba centering the Russian dancers with extra air in his straddle splits. Marcus Romeo also played a flirtatious Mother Ginger with a fierce sway under the cabin-size dress that yields her mischievous children.
Lia Cirio tempered her usual wattage in a more ensemble-based part as Dew Drop in “Waltz of the Flowers” on Friday, and Misa Kuranaga swept through arcing pirouettes as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Grand Pas de Deux with Paulo Arrais as a solid Nutcracker Prince. And under it all, the Boston Ballet Orchestra provided a typically rich rendition of the Tchaikovsky score under the baton of Jonathan McPhee, who’s preparing to step down from his conductor’s role after 27 years. If this is indeed McPhee’s final Nutcracker run, it’s another reason to bask in a proven favorite — and one that’s ever-evolving with little details and delights.