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Dance Review

The first time’s a charm

Boston Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ opens with style

Clockwise from top: Lia Cirio performing as the Snow Queen with Pavel Gurevich as the Snow King; Robert Kretz’s Bear; John Lam’s split jump as the Harlequin doll. Clockwise from top: Lia Cirio performing as the Snow Queen with Pavel Gurevich as the Snow King; Robert Kretz’s Bear; John Lam’s split jump as the Harlequin doll. (Photos By Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2010

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The obvious take-away impression of Boston Ballet’s popular “The Nutcracker’’ is of lavish grandeur. Costumes bedazzle. Opulent sets include a giant Christmas tree that grows before our eyes and a balloon that carries Clara aloft to the Kingdom of Sweets. Dozens of adorable children flood the stage as mischievous mice, stalwart soldiers, frisky lambs.

But the artistic bedrock for all that splendor is striking choreography by artistic director Mikko Nissinen (after the Petipa original), some dazzling dancing, and Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, given a generally expert performance on opening night by Boston Ballet’s talented orchestra, led by Jonathan McPhee. And despite all its grandeur, the production is deftly streamlined and well-paced, even the often cumbersome first act, which lays the groundwork for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s familiar tale of young Clara, her magical Nutcracker, and a fantastical journey to an enchanted kingdom.

Nissinen prefaces the Act I party with a street scene and glimpse into Drosselmeier’s studio, where Clara’s mysterious godfather (a virile, enigmatic Sabi Varga) puts the finishing touches on the Nutcracker doll. Isaac Akiba’s Young Man has a virtuosic cameo, flying across the stage in brilliant leaps and turns.

The subsequent party scene is enlivened by charming details — slightly dotty grandparents, proud adults alternately praising their children’s skilled dancing and chiding them for their rambunctious behavior. Tiny Max Pounanov is a high-spirited Fritz, mischievous one moment, petulant the next. Accomplished young Fiona Wada-Gill portrays Clara with impressive poise and dramatic flair, sailing easily through sequences of substantive choreography.

As Varga’s Drosselmeier ushers in the party magic with flamboyant flourishes of his cape and scarves, John Lam’s split jump as the Harlequin doll seems to spring with breathtaking ease to the ceiling. Robert Kretz’s Bear manages nimble leaps and tumbles despite an ingeniously designed costume that looks like 50 pounds of fur and padding.

The fight scene, choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, still looks overly busy and chaotic, with hordes of mice and soldiers filling the stage and candy flying everywhere. But it moves along and is peppered with delightful touches — a Red Cross stretcher carries off a fallen mouse, a gingerbread boy’s arm gets pulled off in the fracas.

Normally, one of the most moving sections of “The Nutcracker’’ is Act I’s snow scene finale. However, opening night’s performance, though solid, looked rushed and a little frenetic, pushed by musical tempi that sapped some of its airy grace. Lia Cirio’s Snow Queen, unlike more reserved, pristine portrayals, was warm-blooded and full-bodied. She imbued her pas de deux with Snow King Pavel Gurevich with a lyrical elasticity in the arms and upper body. Gurevich soared through high grand jetés with cushiony landings.

Act II’s lively cavalcade of dances conjured sweets, flowers, and distant lands. “Spanish’’ had a spirited flamenco flair. “Chinese’’ featured a winsome complement of umbrella-twirling children. “Russian’’ was highlighted by rousing mid-air spins, squat kicks, and eight split jumps in a row by the buoyant Akiba. Kathleen Breen Combes and Lasha Khozashvili offered a beautifully timed, sinuous “Arabian’’ full of sensuous couplings and one eye-popping overhead lift, turning Combes upside down in a split. She was a model of flexibility, her lithe torso melting into deep arches, legs hyperextended, arms curling like tendrils of smoke.

However, most impressive was Misa Kuranaga, whose beatific Sugar Plum Fairy was near perfect. Gracious and eloquent, she displayed fluid arms, articulate footwork, and impeccable timing, her movement completely filling out each musical phrase. James Whiteside was a dashing Cavalier, his long legs sending him into elegant leaps and scissor kicks with beats so sharp you could hear the smack of flesh.

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

BOSTON BALLET “The Nutcracker’’

At: Boston Opera House, Friday night