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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 14 APRIL 2015 — It’s hard to imagine a greater crowd-pleaser during the festive season than Rudolph Nureyev’s wonderful, ‘Russian’ production of The Nutcracker, programmed at the Opera Bastille for 21 performances, sold-out for weeks before.

Set at the turn of the century, it is a ballet which has something for everyone, from the charm of Tchaikovsky’s hauntingly evocative score to the glittering Christmas tree and party with games for the children and the arrival of Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, his arms piled high with presents. There are big ensemble numbers in grand style, not least the magical Snowflakes Waltz, set in a beautiful winter garden reminiscent of a St Petersburg palace and the Waltz of the Flowers, culminating in one of the prettiest pas de deux created for Clara and her prince. The glorious décor and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, who also collaborated with Nureyev on the storyline, never fail to draw exclamations of delight from the audience.

Nureyev's The Nutcracker
Paris Opera Ballet

Nureyev developed the story, which is seen through the eyes of a child, Clara, and in doing so, he transformed her role into that of a true ballerina as well as giving the prince the double role of also interpreting Drosselmeyer at the beginning and end of the ballet. Creating the part of the fairy-tale prince for himself in 1985, it is one which demands an aristocratic style together with a total mastery of technique, as well as a sense of fun, and on December 20th, the role was interpreted by Mathieu Ganio. He was partnered by Ludmila Pagliero, a young ballerina who has the face and the physique, the technique and the artistry for the role, not an easy one, who conveyed with ease all the torment and joy which happens to her, and who passed effortlessly from the innocent child of Act I, to the aristocratic ballerina of Act II.

While the Paris Opera currently possesses a new generation of young étoiles, several of international standing, Ganio stands out as a true ‘danseur noble’. Elegant and refined with romantic good looks and effortless technique, he was a worthy partner of Pagliero who was full of wonder and charm as Clara. It is a role often associated with a child-ballerina, often adorable as the young Clara, but less assured as the mature ballerina of Act II. Pagliero was sublime throughout, performing the exquisite pas de deux of the final act with precision and feather-light grace. Indeed, she seemed to float across the stage, radiant and extremely touching, in the arms of her prince.

Mathieu Ganio and Ludmila Pagliero,
The Nutcracker
Paris Opera Ballet

It was an enchanting evening, full of excitement, wonder and romance, a production which cannot be programmed too often.

In contrast, at the Palais Garnier, Jean Guillaume Bart’s La Source proved a tad disappointing after the magic of Nureyev’s Nutcracker.  With memories of the elegant and fastidious production premiered in 2011 which held together despite the weak libretto, the absence of an all-star cast this time, and in particular, without the luminosity of Myriam Ould-Braham who created the role of Naila, the water sprite, much of the initial impact was lost. It was hard to relate to the main characters, and consequently, Naila’s sacrifice at the end became meaningless.

Jean Guillaume Bart's La Source
Paris Opera Ballet

A brilliant team of collaborators had taken the original, complicated story of the 1866 work set somewhere in a fictitious Persia, concocting a theme successfully juxtaposing the real world with that of the supernatural.  Naila falls in love with Djemel, the hunter, who loves Nouredda who is promised to the powerful Khan. Nouredda, humiliated by Djemil, rejects him, but Naila sacrifices her life to ensure the happiness of the human pair.

At best, it is a weak plot, where emotion hinges upon the performance of Naila, Djemil being almost reduced to a secondary role, certainly artistically speaking. The lion’s share of the action is given to Nouredda’s brother, Mozdock, unfortunately on this occasion interpreted by an unconvincing Audric Bezard. Neither were premieres danseuses Muriel Zusperreguy and Eve Grinsztajn at ease as Naila and Nouredda, respectively.

However, Yann Saiz, corps de ballet, was excellent as the Khan in his magnificent fur-trimmed costume encrusted with shimmering Swarovski crystals and momentary excitement was provided by each appearance of premier danseur François Alu as Djemel, defying gravity with his tremendous jumps.

François Alu as Djemel in La Source
Choreography: Jean Guillaume Bart

But the stars of the evening had to be Christian Lacroix’s extravagant costumes, complemented by Eric Ruf’s splendid modern décor, and of course, Delibes music (interspersed with extracts from Minkus), which succeeded in transporting the spectator into a luxurious  world  inhabited by magical beings.

Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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