The Nutcracker, Royal Opera House, London

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“It is a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention.” So ran a critical judgment after the first performance of The Nutcracker in St Petersburg. With far too many productions today this comment is still true, but not at Covent Garden, nor indeed in Birmingham, whose branches of the Royal Ballet boast Peter Wright’s stagings of this adorable work, delicate in sentiment but profoundly touching and, thanks to Tchaikovsky, admirably true. The score is a miracle of feeling, of theatrical magic: we know the excitements as the Christmas tree grows, feel the chill winds that impel the snowflakes, and understand the nobility of purest classic dancing in the final great duet, if we will but listen, as do too few producers, to what the orchestra is saying. (Roland John Wiley’s masterly Tchaikovsky’s Ballets should be required reading for everyone presenting these works.)

The Nutcracker is now returned to Covent Garden for our delectation, albeit I find certain accretions to the dancing less than necessary. I do not care for Clara’s involvement in the second act divertissements: she is an honoured guest, not a visiting performer. Yet at the performance I attended, great pleasure came with the debuts of Yuhui Choe (pictured, with Sergei Polunin) as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and of Steven McRae, happily returned to the stage after injury, as her cavalier.

Choe has many virtues. Her dancing is clear, exact, lightly stated and musical. There is a charming freshness to what she does, phrases explored as if for the first time, but at the centre of her artistry is a true sense of formal dignity: she knows, even if at this debut she could not wholly show – how could she? – that the choreography demands the grandest ballerina manner. McRae is bright, brilliant-cut in technique, ardent in shaping a step or a phrase, and the role is his – and handsomely so.

Would that these words of praise could be given to more of the dancers in the second act’s classic numbers. What I saw looked imprecise, optimistic, unfeeling and unfelt: not the best advertisement for the Royal Ballet’s academic style. Can do better.

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