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The Nutcracker

Silver houses and marmalade castles: interpreting The Nutcracker

In 1892 the curtains rose at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg for the premiere of a new ballet. With a score by Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa, the ballet was set to be a hit. After all, the pair had produced The Sleeping Beauty, which was hugely successful, just two years earlier.

But The Nutcracker flopped.

There were complaints about all aspects of the ballet; it didn’t stick closely enough to the original source material – E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King – and it was choreographed by Petipa’s assistant rather than by Petipa himself, who was too ill. The dancers, too, were criticized for not being graceful enough, and the prominent feature of children was not a popular move.

Scene from the original production of The Nutcracker, Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg, 1892

Tchaikovsky’s score, on the other hand, was a success, and hailed as ‘astonishingly rich in inspiration’ and ‘beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic’. Although it inspired a few adaptations of the ballet in the following decades, The Nutcracker was not performed outside Russia until 1934, and did not become an annual Christmas tradition until 1952.

Land of Sweets

Part of the magic of The Nutcracker is the journey into the Land of Sweets in Act II of the ballet, where foods from different countries are represented through dance. Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, Danish marzipan, and, of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy all present themselves to Marie and the Prince. All of these items would have represented wealth and luxury, giving the ballet a sense of exoticism, wonder, and magic.

The original programme called this section Scène de Confiturembürg, joining together the French confiture, meaning ‘marmalade’ or ‘jam’ (borrowed into Russian as конфитюр), with the German burg, meaning ‘castle’ (also used as a suffix to many town and city names, including Saint Petersburg).

Sketches of the original set suggest that every effort was taken in creating a Confiturembürg that was truly worthy of its name:

Original sketch for the set of The Nutcracker, Konstantin Ivanov, 1892

Imperial Russia and the language of The Nutcracker

In 1892, French was the language of the Russian Imperial Court, which also extended to the Imperial Theatres. All libretti and performances were therefore titled in French, and Russian theatre-goers would have been fluent francophones. By some accounts, French was so ubiquitous in 19th century Russian high society that many members of the Russian upper-classes didn’t speak Russian very well at all.

But because the source material for The Nutcracker was German, some aspects of the ballet retain their Germanic roots. The most prominent example is the elusive Godfather Drosselmeyer, who gives Marie the nutcracker as a Christmas present. Drossel is German for ‘thrush’, a small songbird that is good at disguising itself, and moves quickly, bringing music wherever it goes, much like the character of Drosselmeyer in the ballet.

A lesser-known example is the name of the family itself—Silberhaus—meaning ‘silver house’. The name of the family in the original Hoffmann story was actually Stahlbaume, meaning ‘steel tree’, but in an adaptation of the story by Alexandre Dumas, from which Petipa also drew inspiration, the family name was changed to Silberhaus. Whether or not this change was made in an effort to be more festive, the notion of the Land of Sweets coming from the Silver House does give the ballet a romantic quality.

Marie or Clara?

All Nutcrackerconnoisseurs will know that the name of the female lead varies from production to production, and the reason is simple. In the original Hoffmann story, the young protagonist is called Marie, and Clara is the name of her doll. But because Marie’s doll was never adapted as a character for the ballet, artistic directors have used both names to refer to the central character.

Both names have interesting connotations; while ‘Marie’ is very traditional, having associations with the Virgin Mary (and thus retaining a link to Christmas), ‘Clara’ comes from the Latin clarus meaning ‘clear’ or ‘bright’. A director may choose one name over the other to reflect the general tone of his production. There are interesting examples; George Balanchine’s traditional 1954 version of The Nutcracker, produced for the New York City Ballet and performed every year since its premiere, calls its heroine ‘Marie’. Matthew Bourne, on the other hand, completely reinterprets the original story in his avant-garde adaptation, Nutcracker!, and calls his character ‘Clara’.

The beehive

The last segment on the 1892 programme of The Nutcracker was called Apothéose: une Ruche, ruche meaning a ‘beehive of activity’. If you have ever seen a production of The Nutcracker, you will probably remember the commotion on stage as Mouse King meets Chinese Tea meets Snowflake meets reveller.

The ‘beehive of activity’ evokes the Christmas buzz, but also gives a smallness to the story, and lets us know that all around us, everywhere, there are Silver Houses from which come dreams of Lands of Sweets, or Marmalade Castles if you prefer, and where children, adults, music, dance, toys, and food come together for Christmas.

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