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International Holiday Music

Millepied had developed the production in collaboration with the noted Parisian children’s book author and illustrator Paul Cox, who designed the sets and costumes—and joined the crew: at each performance, Cox draws in a childish hand on a backstage computer to create the illustrated titles, which appear in real time as projections on the white stage curtain. When the curtain rises, the dancers arrive on skis—it is Switzerland, after all—for the Christmas party scene. The set’s yellow house is in the ideal form that almost every child draws—square, with a red roof and chimney, four-over-four windows, and blocky furniture. In this vision of the ballet, the Nutcracker becomes a frog who rallies the military defense against the mouse invasion before turning into a prince. Drosselmeyer, the toymaker, is a guiding force throughout and directs Clara and the prince to the enchanted kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

In Act II, the house is turned upside down, and Clara and the prince descend into a dreamlike, mirror-image world to find the perfect place for watching the spectacle to come: on the ceiling, amid piles of sweets. Millepied and Cox stress the tale’s sense of odyssey. The couple turn a globe to signal each national dance—Spanish, Russian, Chinese. The ballet is built upon fantasy, yet within that framework Millepied has created a version that seems more relevant and up-to-date than Balanchine’s nostalgic telling. Clara’s parents are young and overtly in love in their pas de deux in the first act, and at the end of the second, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier reflects the love that Clara, on the cusp of maturity, discovers with her prince as they go off into the world.

When I arrived in Vienna there were deep drifts of snow along the Ringstrasse, the boulevard that defines the city’s historic and cultural center. Since 1939, when the Vienna Philharmonic first introduced a special concert of Johann Strauss’s music, the city has become a landmark for ushering in the New Year. The concert is performed three times: the mornings of December 30 (which I attended) and January 1, and the evening of December 31. The shoebox-shaped Golden Hall of the Musikverein is a gilded extravaganza, with 12 crystal chandeliers, and its acoustics are legendary. I had a seat onstage, directly behind the violins, with a straight-on view of conductor Mariss Jansons. There was a visceral quality to the music-making—the physical pull of bows across strings—and an almost inhuman perfection.

Although the program varies from year to year, its conclusion is always the same: as the strains of the "Blue Danube" begin, the audience breaks into applause; the music gracefully halts, and the conductor stops to offer New Year’s greetings. Then he and the orchestra again strike up the waltz, with a give-and-take that endows this evergreen with an exuberance that is unmistakably Viennese. I felt exhilaration—the pulse of the waltz?—but something deeper, too, as if I had arrived where I belonged.

Paula Deitz, editor of the Hudson Review, writes frequently on music and art.


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