This bright-spirited production, from Salt Lake City’s exceedingly handsome ballet company, is sanctified by history, and deservedly so. Choreographed by Willam Christensen in 1944, it was America’s first full-length “Nutcracker” ever. Yes, folks, imagine a day when no one knew the story of young Clara and the transformative gift from her godfather, when its music did not plink from every shopping mall. Then Christensen’s ballet comes along, with its domestic charms and wartime uplift, and it’s no wonder that eventually, the “Nutcracker” phenomenon spread like a virus. If only the ensuing plethora had hewn to Christensen’s unerring feeling for art as well as entertainment.
From its first moment to its last, the tenderness, warmth and mystery of Tchaikovsky’s music is the true star here. (Terence Kern conducted the Opera House Orchestra with an especially airy, buoyant touch.) Happily, there is no dancing during the overture — the music is allowed to stir the imagination all on its own, as intended, with its rising currents of anticipation.
Once the curtain lifts, the theme of passage and transformation — from outside to inside, from reality to dream — which is central to the music, is also captured in the set design. We see carolers bundled against the snow outside a grand mansion, whose glowing windows hint at the warmth inside. When the parlor is revealed, a candlelit Christmas tree dominates, but what catches your eye is the view of the stars behind it, beckoning through huge windows that frame an infinite evening sky.
Throughout this first act there were foreshadowings of the next. Sayaka Ohtaki’s crisp windup Doll was like a deconstructed ballerina, preparing us for the radiantly harmonious Sugar Plum Fairy to come. While Clara is cradling her nutcracker doll, the ponytailed Dr. Drosselmeyer — who, as played by the magnetic Beau Pearson, had the slightly unsteady swagger of an aging rock star — mimes through shorthand gestures his plan to ignite the little girl’s dream of whiskery critters and other marvels.
Later, Drosselmeyer alone presides over the tree-growing scene, ushering in a perfect transition from home life to the realm of the imagination. With this uncluttered stage picture we can absorb all the magic of this majestic musical moment, one of the most wondrous in the ballet canon.
The second act’s fantasy land has a charmingly exotic look to it, like something out of a Diaghilev-era ballet (a nod to Fokine’s “The Firebird,” perhaps), with its glowing pink sky and golden filigreed arches and spires reaching heavenward. Nostalgic touches continue in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s entrance in a fluffy pink tutu, blindingly bright tiara and trailing golden cape, which reminded me of Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”