Ballet on Boxing Night: When The Nutcracker became very sweet
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A year ago I went to London’s Haymarket Theatre to see Only Fools and Horses the Musical. After that night, I’d found my inner culture-vulture, but a night at the Opera was perhaps still pushing it a little. Ballet? Well, that was another matter altogether, but a yuletide trip to Budapest was to change all that.
It’s only natural to do a bit of online research before you go, and I’m so glad I did otherwise I never would’ve known that going to the Hungarian State Opera – in particular to see The Nutcracker – is as much a festive tradition over there as cracker jokes are here in Britain.
But even if I’d needed a bit of persuading, how can 10 million Hungarians be wrong? Christmas Day had, unsurprisingly, sold out. Ballet on Boxing Night was the next best thing and to my amazement I managed to land literally the last seat in the house, and a pretty good one at that (£80 well spent, I’d say). Now it really would be a case of ‘When in Rome’.
Fast-forward a little over six weeks and December 26th had arrived! Like London and New York, Budapest has its own Broadway. Although not on the same scale, it nontheless contains several theatres as well as plenty of options for pre-show dinner and drinks. Then I arrived at the venue itself – what a place. Like much of this enchanting capital city, the building was very easy on the eye, but it’s not until you enter that you get a sense of the grandiose yet informal atmosphere of it all. Walking up the red-carpeted stairs, you almost feel like royalty – as if you’ve really made it in life – without ever feeling out of place.
All the pomp and ceremony that would’ve been evident on the opening night way back in 1884 still oozes from every gild-edged wall and ceiling. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve actually time-travelled back to the 19th century, as if the Emperor and court composer are about to emerge – no wonder it never fails to feature in any world’s top ten opera house list.
After having been seated for around 20 minutes, the lights went down. The Nutcracker is very much a game of two halves: Tchaikovsky, its composer, split it into Acts I and II. The first is more of an opera-based play, with the second providing much of the showpiece ballet and is therefore more heavily choreographed. Set on Christmas Eve, it tells the story of Clara and her beloved nutcracker doll, which runs the gauntlet with a band of (quite scary looking) mice when everyone’s gone to beddy-byes.
As great as Act I is, it’s the second part where the show really comes into its own. Scene I is The Land of Sweets and it really do seem like one big chocolate box has come alive in front of your very eyes. If that wasn’t festive enough, I could’ve sworn I could detect the scent of mince pies filling the air. You certainly don’t need to be a Strictly judge to appreciate the talent that’s gone into the the whole production, and yes I’ll admit it did bring a tear to my eye at one point.
That’s not to mention my hands feeling rather sore with all that clapping – you can’t help but get swept up in rapturous applause after rapturous applause. The score plays like the ultimate hits parade. Classical music fans will be able to put a title to each tune, but the rest of you would still recognise these catchy melodies that we’ve all heard at some point in our lives, be that at school or on a TV ad for example. There’s one that sticks out above the rest though, and that’s Trepak, which you’ll be surprisingly familiar with through Christmas movie trailers.
If you need convincing, click here and you’ll soon be humming it to yourself: absolute proof that you don’t need to be an opera buff or bonkers about ballet to appreciate a night like this. The Nutcracker truly was a privelege to witness, and one I’d gladly pay for again.