I do always enjoy some seasonal reading and seasonal music around Christmas time. I didn't get all that much done last year really, and am very late talking about it, but I was really pleased to finally read Nutcracker. Images of the Nutcracker, are so iconic, I've seen them many places of course, they're a favourite of department store windows around the world it seems. I've never even seen the ballet, so didn't even have that to give me a clue.
I'd bought a beautiful hardback edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak on a trip to Canberra recently- it was time to read it. Sendak's involvement in this book came about via the ballet. In 1981the Pacific Northwest Ballet asked Maurice Sendak to design a set for their upcoming production of the ballet version. He was not immediately keen.
To begin with, who in the world needed another Nutcracker? The mandatory Christmas tree and Candyland sequences were enough to sink my spirits completely. And the fantastical subject mixed generously with children, seemed, paradoxically, too suited to me, too predictable. I didn't want to be suited to the confectionery goings-on of this, I thought, most bland and banal of ballet productions.
Interestingly, the ballet is based on the popular French version of the tale by Alexandre Dumas, pere- The Nutcracker of Nuremberg. The creator of the ballet Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky simplified Dumas' version even further, emerging "at a dangerous distance from Hoffmann."
Of course Sendak did design the production- two full acts and over 180 costumes. The book version is illustrated with a composite of his ballet designs and new illustrations for the sequences in the story that don't appear in the ballet.
I was rather surprised to find that The Nutcracker isn't really all that much of a Christmas story. Yes, the story starts at Christmas, and there is a wonderful description of a 19th century tree decorated with "gold and silver apples, and sugared almonds, bright-coloured candles, and goodies of all kinds shaped like buds and blossoms hung from every branch." But the story itself of warring tribes of toys and mice isn't particularly Christmasy. Although it's interesting to speculate on the links between The Nutcracker and the much more modern Toy Story. Toy Story certainly wasn't the first story to have toys come to life at night.
While I enjoyed the early parts of the story, and quite like the notion of a seven-headed King of Mice, I did get a bit bored and a bit bogged down in the story within the story aspect of it all. But I think Ralph Manheim did a lovely job with the translation.
One night at exactly twelve o'clock, a lady-in-waiting who was sitting close by the cradle was startled from a deep sleep. All was quiet round about. Not a purr could be heard. In that deathly stillness you might have heard the woodworm nibbling in the wainscoting.
Still I'm happy to know that The Nutcracker is really a nutcracker after all. One day I need to watch the ballet.