Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Nutcracker Suite - A Christmas Music Countdown

My Christmas Music Countdown is supposed to be all about the music. But today, it’s going to be about the music, the ballet, a reportedly very strange new movie, and the original story that inspired “The Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

A new movie version of “The Nutcracker,” in 3D, hit the movies around Thanksgiving and critics, to pardon a cliché, hit the ceiling. They were not thankful. They roundly and soundly panned the film as weird, dark, and unfit for young children. They particularly objected to its redating to 1920s Vienna, with the world on the brink of Nazi globalization. They complained that it didn’t sound very merry to them, and there’s no doubt about that.

What really troubles the critics about this version of The Nutcracker? I haven’t seen it and they may be right – it may be a visual nightmare, although the commercials I’ve seen are rather enticing. Of course, the fact that it’s a 3-D movie is a deal-breaker for me; I wouldn’t go see it even if the critics were over the moon about the movie.

They complain about the film’s dark aspect, set in a grim world where toys are burned and the villain photographs children crying. Real-world villains do much worse than that when photographing kids. This wouldn’t be the first grim or frightening Christmas story. What about The Nightmare Before Christmas? Bad Santa? The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Or general children’s movies like The Wizard of Oz?

They also cite its weird-factor. Has anyone seen Alice in Wonderland? Or Moulin Rouge? If I could find a non-3D version of this new movie, I’d see it just to find out what the fuss is all about. I suspect the critics’ Liberal morals have been offended by the notion of a movie showing national socialism (or state capitalism) in a bad light and soldiers with guns forcing the people into forced labor. We don’t want the dear little children to get the wrong idea about their intentions, after all. So they’re soundly panning the movie.

So it’s not a version of The Nutcracker for the Under Eight set. Every version of The Nutcracker I’ve seen, either in ballet or on a recording, has made short work of the war between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. The war accounts for perhaps a tenth of the ballet. The rest is devoted to the party, the tree, the uncle, and the romance between the ballerina and the prince (the former Nutcracker). Sugar plum fairies, dancing snowflakes, and pas de deux between the principals prevail. Good luck with dragging a boy to something like that.

Boys tend to take a destructive view of things. The more destructive the better, especially if it’s in nauseating, head-banging 3-D. And if the movie is a thin disguise for a political statement, their fathers will be more willing to take them. No, it may not be a movie for 8 year olds. But it may be just the thing for slightly older boys (and their Dads) who can’t stomach sugar plum fairies and men in tights.

It’s worth noting that men generally hate dancing, particularly ballet. They’d rather wear curlers to work than have to endure a ballet. They have only slightly more tolerance for opera. So this producer made a non-dancing, and musically-tolerable movie for guys and their little dudes. Hence, the dancing was removed. This was the warning about the film posted by a website devoted to parents with kids:

“A man is shown whacking others with a shovel. Machine gun-bearing soldiers roam the streets (you mean like in the airports?). The Rat King enjoys taking photos of kids crying after their toys are confiscated and burned (in Harry Potter, the teacher burns the hands of students who’ve broken the rules, making them cry); he hangs the pictures on the wall. The Rat Queen bites her son’s ear (that is weird, but then, she is a rat. Urbans will get it). Soldiers kidnap the Rat King’s enemies, some of whom are children, and throw them in a cage (Hansel & Gretel). A boy likes to destroy toys (What boy doesn’t?). A character uses a man’s head to crack a walnut with force (Ever hear of the Three Stooges?).”

The critics also took issue with the addition of lyrics to Tchaikovsky’s music, a libretto, if you will. Ballets generally don’t come with librettos because it’s about the dancing, not the story, although there is a story, as you’ll soon discover. So what if they did add lyrics? The critics consider these lyrics insipid? They can’t be any worse than anything else that’s out today. But they feel this classical piece is too sacred to be toyed with.

Did you know Sousa’s classical march, Stars and Stripes Forever, had lyrics added? Some notable movies had both straight, dramatic versions and musical versions, most notably, Anna and the King of Siam and its musical twin, The King and I. Anna and the King is not your happy-go-lucky, dance-it-up movie. It’s black and white and quite a grim film. In the dramatic version, Anna’s little boy is killed and the lovers are burned at the stake. My Fair Lady was a dramatic play before they added the lyrics: Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. In the dramatic version, Prof. Higgins remains a confirmed bachelor and Eliza marries Freddie Einsford-Hill.  Now there’s a truly scary thought.

Since when did Liberals become lovers of Tchaikovsky and classical music, anyway? I thought they’d rather chew their own ears off than listen to a piece of classical music.  I know from loving music. I’m surrounded by music-lovers. Who do these Liberal critics think they’re kidding?

And then there’s the story, itself.  Not to mention the story of the story, and how it was pretty much abandoned for the dancing and the accompanying music.

*The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto is adapted from “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816. The ballet premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on Dec. 18, 1892, on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky's opera, Iolanta.

The original production was not a success, but the 20-minute suite Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. Still, the complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the mid-20th century and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season, especially in the U.S.

The Tchaikovsky score has become his most famous composition, in particular the pieces featured in the Nutcracker Suite. Among other things, the score is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda. Although known primarily as the featured solo instrument in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Act II of The Nutcracker, it is also employed elsewhere in the same act.

After the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be Iolanta. For the ballet, Tchaikovsky would again join forces with Marius Petipa, with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty. The material Petipa chose was an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandre Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker. The plot of Hoffmann's story (and Dumas' adaptation) was greatly simplified for the two-act ballet. Hoffmann's tale contains a long flashback story within its main plot entitled The Tale of the Hard Nut, which explains how the Prince was turned into the Nutcracker. This had to be excised for the ballet.

Petipa gave Tchaikovsky detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The composer did not appreciate working under such constraints and found himself reluctant to work on the ballet. The completion of the work was interrupted when Tchaikovsky visited the United States to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall.

In the premiere, the children's ballet roles, unlike many later productions, were performed by real children rather than adults (Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, and Vassily Stukolkin as Fritz), who were students of Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg. The reaction to the dancers themselves was ambivalent. While some critics praised the Sugar Plum Fairy (she allegedly received five curtain-calls), one critic called her “corpulent” and "podgy.” Olga Preobajenskaya as the Columbine doll was panned by one critic as “completely insipid” and praised as “charming” by another. One audience member described the choreography of the battle scene as confusing: “One cannot understand anything. Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards -- quite amateurish.”

The libretto was criticized for being “lopsided” and not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Much of the criticism focused on the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet, and many bemoaned the fact that the ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux (in music, it would be a duet) near the end of the second act (which did not occur until nearly midnight during the program). Some found the transition between the mundane world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt. Reception was better for Tchaikovsky's score. Critics called it “astonishingly rich in inspiration” and “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic.”

But even this was not unanimous as some critics found the party scene “ponderous”and the Grand Pas de Deux “insipid.” You just can’t please some people.

"The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (German: Nussknacker und Mausekönig) is a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann in which young Clara Stahlbaum's favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls.

The story begins on Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. Marie, 12 years old, and her brother Fritz, 8, sit outside the parlor speculating about what kind of present their godfather Drosselmeyer, who is a clockmaker and inventor, has made for them. They are at last allowed into the parlor, where they receive many splendid gifts, including Drosselmeyer's, which turns out to be a clockwork castle with mechanical people moving about inside it. However, as the mechanical people can only do the same thing over and over without variation, the children quickly tire of it. At this point, Marie notices a Nutcracker doll, and asks whom he belongs to. Her father tells her that he belongs to all of them, but that since she is so fond of him she will be his special caretaker. Marie, her sister Louise, and her brother Fritz pass the Nutcracker among them, cracking nuts, until Fritz tries to crack a nut that is too big and hard, and the Nutcracker's jaw breaks. Marie, upset, takes the Nutcracker away and bandages him with a ribbon from her dress.

When it is time for bed, the children put their Christmas gifts away in the special cupboard where they keep their toys. Fritz and Louise go up to bed, but Marie begs to be allowed to stay with Nutcracker a while longer, and she is allowed to do so. She puts Nutcracker to bed and tells him that Drosselmeyer will fix his jaw as good as new. At this, the Nutcracker's face seems momentarily to come alive, and Marie is frightened, but she then decides it was only her imagination.

The grandfather clock begins to chime, and Marie believes she sees Drosselmeyer sitting on top of it, preventing it from striking. Mice begin to come out from beneath the floor boards, including the seven-headed Mouse King. Marie, startled, slips and puts her elbow through the glass door of the toy cupboard. The dolls in the cupboard come alive and begin to move, Nutcracker taking command and leading them into battle after putting Marie's ribbon on as a token. The battle at first goes to the dolls, but they are eventually overwhelmed by the mice. Marie, seeing Nutcracker about to be taken prisoner, takes off her shoe and throws it at the Mouse King, then faints.

Marie wakes the next morning with her arm bandaged and tries to tell her parents about the battle between the mice and the dolls, but they do not believe her, thinking that she has had a fever dream caused by the wound she sustained from the broken glass. Drosselmeyer soon arrives with the Nutcracker, whose jaw has been fixed, and tells Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat and the Queen of the Mice, which explains how Nutcrackers came to be and why they look the way they do.

The Queen of the Mice tricked Pirlipat's mother into allowing her and her children to gobble up the lard that was supposed to go into the sausage that the King was to eat at dinner that evening. The King, enraged at the Mouse Queen for spoiling his supper and upsetting his wife, had his court inventor, whose name happens to be Drosselmeyer, create traps for the Mouse Queen and her children.

The Mouse Queen, angered at the death of her children, swore that she’d take revenge on the King's daughter, Pirlipat. Pirlipat's mother surrounded her with cats which were supposed to be kept awake by being constantly stroked, however inevitably the nurses who stroke the cats fell asleep and the Mouse Queen magically turned the infant Pirlipat ugly, giving her a huge head, a wide grinning mouth and a cottony beard, like a nutcracker. The King blamed Drosselmeyer and gave him four weeks to find a cure. At the end of four weeks, Drosselmeyer had no cure and went to his friend, the court astrologer, for help.

They read Pirlipat's horoscope and told the King that the only way to cure her was to have her eat the nut Crackatook, which must be cracked and handed to her by a man who had never been shaved nor worn boots since birth, and who must, without opening his eyes hand her the kernel, then take seven steps backwards without stumbling. The King sent Drosselmeyer and the astrologer out to look for the nut and the young man, charging them on pain of death not to return until they had found them.

The two men journeyed for many years without finding either the nut or the man, until finally they returned home and found the nut in a small shop. The man who had never been shaved and never worn boots turned out to be Drosselmeyer's own nephew. The King, once the nut had been found, promised his daughter's hand to whoever could crack the nut. Many men broke their teeth on the nut before Drosselmeyer's nephew finally appeared. He cracked the nut easily and handed it to the princess, who swallowed it and immediately became beautiful again, but Drosselmeyer's nephew, on his seventh backward step, trod on the Queen of the Mice and stumbled, and the curse fell on him, giving him a large head, wide grinning mouth and cottony beard; in short, making him a Nutcracker. The ungrateful Princess, seeing how ugly Drosselmeyer's nephew had become, refused to marry him and banished him from the castle.

Marie, while she recuperates from her wound, hears the King of the Mice whispering to her in the middle of the night, threatening to bite Nutcracker to pieces unless she gives him her sweets and her dolls. For Nutcracker's sake, Marie sacrifices her things, but the Mouse king wants more and more. Finally, Nutcracker tells Marie that if she will just get him a sword, he will finish the Mouse King. Marie asks Fritz for a sword for Nutcracker, and he gives her the sword of one of his toy hussars.

The next night, Nutcracker comes into Marie's room bearing the Mouse King's seven crowns, and takes her away with him to the doll kingdom, where Marie sees many wonderful things. She eventually falls asleep in the Nutcracker's palace and is brought back home. She tries to tell her mother what happened, but again she is not believed, even when she shows her parents the seven crowns, and she is forbidden to speak of her “dreams” anymore.

As Marie sits in front of the toy cabinet one day, looking at Nutcracker and thinking about all the wondrous things that happened, she can't keep silent anymore and swears to the Nutcracker that if he were ever really real she would never behave as Princess Pirlipat behaved, and she would love him whatever he looked like. At this, there is a bang and she falls off the chair. Her mother comes in to tell her that godfather Drosselmeyer has arrived with his young nephew.

Drosselmeyer's nephew takes Marie aside and tells her that by swearing that she would love him in spite of his looks, she broke the curse on him and made him handsome again. He asks her to marry him. She accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen.  * Source: Wikipedia

And that’s the real Nutcracker story. There’s a lot more to it than sugar plum fairies, much as we love seeing them. Much of the story was deleted from the ballet due to the story’s length and complicated structure: the nutcracker is actually a cursed princess, who then banishes the prince who saves her. The cursed prince turns out to be Marie’s godfather’s nephew, and that by declaring that she would love him no matter what he like, unlike Princess Pirlipat, that the spell was broken. He takes away to the Doll Kingdom, where she’s crowned the queen.

Doll Kingdom? No movie producer is going to sell a film about a doll kingdom to today’s young audiences. Since there are no words in the ballet, it’s difficult to understand in a live production that the Sugar Plum Fairy and all the rest are Marie’s dolls come to life. And today’s movies, even for the smaller set are so foul-mouthed, that it’s hard to believe they would accept a Kingdom of Dolls. Ever watch Spongebob Squarepants?

No; this rejection of this movie, while it may very well be technically valid, is about the war on present-day socialism. Critics can complain all they want; the original Wizard of Oz was a political and economic allegory as well. Oz is the abbreviation for ounce. Children today, thanks to Mickey Mouse, aren’t particularly fearful of mice, so the producer turned the mice into rats; that’s hardly a weird mystery.

There are three elements to the Nutcracker. If you want the shallow, but sweet, charming and imaginative Christmas ballet version, take your kids to see a performance of The Nutcracker, or rent one of the video productions. If you simply love the music (as I do) there are many variations from versions by the New York Philharmonic, the Kirov Ballet to a Glenn Miller jazz version, and everything in between.

For substance, try to find the original storybook, and find a more objective critic’s review of this movie to find out what it’s really all about. If it’s not as bad as the Liberal critics claim, go see it with your older kids. Most of all, read the original story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King to your little ones before they hum it, dance to it, or watch it.


Post a Comment

<< Home