Sunday 20 December 2015

Merry Christmas from the Secret Victorianist – Holiday Entertainments in New York City

There’s something undeniably Victorian about Christmas entertainments—both musical and theatrical—especially when they have multigenerational appeal.

In the last week, the Secret Victorianist was lucky enough to attend two productions often performed during the festive season and designed to appeal to the whole family—one with nineteenth-century, and the other with eighteenth-century, origins.

First up was Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, performed by the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet company in DUMBO, Brooklyn. The premiere of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was in 1892 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, but the ballet didn’t enjoy consistent repetition in the early years.

With Russia’s ballet dancers fleeing the revolution in the early twentieth century, The Nutcracker wasn’t performed in Europe until 1927, when it was danced in Budapest, coming to London in 1934. With the release of Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, the now ubiquitous score became recognisable to American audience, but the first New York Nutcracker wasn’t until 1954.

In the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s production, the girl at the centre of this festive fairy tale is Marie, as in E.T.A Hoffman’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, rather than the now more common Clara (I blogged two years ago about the name ‘Clara’ and its Victorian history).

Dawn Milatin stars and does a beautiful job capturing the character’s childlike excitement in Act One, before progressing to be a fully-fledged and more adult prima ballerina in Act Two. In this production, there is no Sugar Plum Fairy, no Land of Sweets. The focus is firmly on Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, danced by Erez Milatin – Dawn’s husband.

The central pair excels and there are also captivating performances from the dancers playing the various ambassador dolls, but the standard of the lesser performers varies slightly (as you’d expect with the number of young dancers who are still in the Academy).

Overall, despite some creaks in the set and the huge size of the collective company, the ballet was a joy – brimming with character and emotion and clearly delighting the hoards of young ballet-goers gathered for the occasion, arraigned in their tutus and excited to experience a Christmas classic for the first time.

Next up was the Manhattan Opera Studio’s rendition of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.

The opera premiered in Vienna in 1791 and enjoyed immediate popularity, racking up 100 performances in the first year alone. With its magical subject matter and array of colourful characters, the work continues to be loved by opera fans and those new to the art form, acting as a gateway opera, just as The Nutcracker is a gateway ballet.

Weill Recital Hall
The Manhattan Opera Studio’s performance was a celebration of the organisation’s 125th anniversary and brought the magic of the story to life, even in the intimate recital hall, without the elaborate sets I’d seen in the Met’s production earlier in the year. The costuming however nodded to the work's rich performance history, with Sarastro (Hans Tashijan) in particular decked out so extravagantly he had to move sideways through the exit.

The standard of singing was high, with Kyle van Schoonhoven as Tamino and the three ladies (Bridget Casey, Angela Dinkelman and Brittany Catalano) giving particularly good performances. And Nina Kassis, as the Queen of the Night, succeeded in hitting the high notes of the opera's famous arias. The acting however was definitely clunky, most noticeably in the more comic moments with Pagageno (Siddharth Dubey). I felt a little relieved every time the cast resumed singing.

The recital-style performance in the gorgeous setting of the Hall (in use since the Carnegie’s opening in 1891) was a wonderful experience. Seeing the singers so close is something you don’t get exposure to in the cavernous Lincoln Centre and I also enjoyed being able to watch pianist and conductor Michael Wittenburg, who was onstage alongside the actors.

I’d love to hear what entertainments you and your family are enjoying this Holiday season, in New York and elsewhere. Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Merry Christmas, and thanks for following!

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