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‘The Nutcracker’ Flies Again At The Opera House

Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga in Boston Ballet's "The Nutcracker." (Gene Schiavone)

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BOSTON – OK, word association. “Nutcracker.” Dread or enchantment? After about a 10-year hiatus I went to last year’s “Nutcracker” at the Boston Ballet feeling dread, but thanks to Mikko Nissenen’s beguiling production, came away feeling newly enchanted.

Dawn Atkins, Lauren Herfindahl and Ekaterine Chubinidtze in Boston Ballet's "The Nutcracker." (Rosalie O'Connor)

Dawn Atkins, Lauren Herfindahl and Ekaterine Chubinidtze in Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” (Rosalie O’Connor)

The Boston Ballet artistic director is remounting “The Nutcracker” this year at the Opera House (Nov. 29-Dec. 29) so here’s what I had to say about it 12 months ago. There are, of course, changes. This year’s Claras are Tessa Endresen, Eliza French, Calissa Grady, Emily Hoff and Aleena Rose. Principal Dancers Petra Conti and Eris Nezha make their company debuts as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince, along with the Snow Queen and King.

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Clara (Chelsea Perry) treasures the Nutcracker, a present from her uncle, the magician Drosselmeier (right). (Courtesy, Boston Ballet)

Clara (Chelsea Perry) treasures the Nutcracker, a present from her uncle, the magician Drosselmeier (right). (Courtesy, Boston Ballet)

Let me tell you something about “The Nutcracker” and my family. My niece was a dancer, a very good one, and I would see her every chance I got. She was in “The Nutcracker” for 10 years, four of them with the Boston Ballet, so when she stopped dancing about 10 years ago I figured I had paid my “Nutcracker” dues.

As did my wife. When I told her that I was thinking of going to the new “Nutcracker” at Boston Ballet this year she looked at me the way General Petraeus’s wife must have looked at him when she heard about Paula Broadwell. There are family memories for both of us associated with “The Nutcracker.” Once, when the Nutcracker Prince, returned to the stage toward the end, her young nephew cried out in the hushed hall, “Oh, no, not him again.” At the other end of the spectrum, my aunt similarly sang out, “There she is” when she saw, or thought she saw, my niece on the stage.

Chelsea Perry is utterly self-confident at every turn, or plié. Sabi Varga is as charismatic a Drosselmeier as you could hope for – angular, bohemian, swashbuckling.

So there was a certain amount of dread associated with returning to the ballet – sans wife. That dread was dispelled almost immediately. Artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s newly choreographed version (at the Opera House, through Dec. 30) (Dec. 29 this year) manages to be everything a classic ballet should be while never feeling like a museum piece. It would be going too far to say that the production made me see “The Nutcracker” with new eyes – that would be pretty much impossible at this point – but it certainly revitalized the story of Clara’s journey from privileged young girl into a life of unbridled imagination.

I haven’t seen that much of the Boston Ballet under Nissinen. My loss. The dancing seems of a different order these days. I’m hardly a dance critic, though I can say with certainty that I’ve never seen a better Clara and Drosselmeier than Chelsea Perry and Sabi Varga at Boston Ballet. Perry, from Walpole, is utterly self-confident at every turn, or plié – she was originally cast as Clara in 2010. Varga, as her uncle, a magician who presents her with the Nutcracker and opens up the new world to her, is as charismatic a Drosselmeier as you could hope for – angular, bohemian, swashbuckling.

The rest of the cast lived up to the billing that friends who are regular ballet goers have been telling me about for years – Jeffrey Cirio as the Nutcracker Prince, Misa Kuranaga as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Kathleen Breen Combes and Paulo Arrais as the Snow Queen and King, Isaac Akiba and the other Russian dancers, were all first-rate.

Robert Perdziola’s design is a mixed bag. The costumes are bold and adorable – love the bear and all the other critters — but the set design is rather flat. If the idea is to keep the focus on the dancers instead of the glitz, it’s certainly a success. And the second half fresco of dancers provides a pleasantly balletic backdrop.

It also has to be said that the Opera House is a much more enjoyable place to see “The Nutcracker” than the Wang was. It not only brings the dancing into focus but provides better acoustics for Jonathan McPhee and the orchestra’s faultless playing of the Tchaikovsky score.

I wonder a bit about the opening scene with the street urchins. It’s so Dickensian that Nissinen seems to be making a political point, but it’s one he doesn’t return to.

The bottom line is that “The Nutcracker” is newly enchanting. And engrossing. Not a peep was heard from elderly aunts or restless young nephews.