The La Scala Ballet is already familiar to Asian audiences because of its regular tours to Asia. The most recent was the China tour last autumn which I previously reported on. Nevertheless, it is no comparison to seeing this renowned Italian company at home in Milan, in the sumptuous setting of La Scala opera house.

The company’s 2018-19 season opened in mid-December with a brand new production of The Nutcracker. This Tchaikovsky classic was first created by the great French choreographer Marius Petipa and premiered in St Petersburg in 1892. La Scala’s new production is George Balanchine’s version created for the New York City Ballet back in 1954, with refreshing new designs by Margherita Palli.

Meticulously staged by Sandra Jennings from the Balanchine Trust, this premiere is noteworthy as La Scala is only the second European company to stage the Balanchine masterpiece (after the Royal Danish Ballet). Balanchine’s production of Nutcracker is arguably the most satisfying version of this classic currently on view anywhere. It should please traditionalists who prefer the story to be told simply and clearly without any unnecessary fuss or psychological twists. Every part of Balanchine’s production makes sense without any gaps or illogicalities.

Act 1, set as usual in the Christmas party in the Stahlbaum’s home, gives full scope to the children with their extensive dancing, which is commendable. It is moving to see them dancing on the right, alongside the adults on the left in a ballroom dance. And what a bonus to see such excellent performances by the students of La Scala Ballet School. The two leading roles for the children are Marie and the Nutcracker Prince.

Besides the children, another star of Act 1 is the Christmas tree in this production. Its growth to full size is magical and most spectacular, complemented by the change in scale of the toy soldiers and mice as well as the furniture.

Giulia Consumi, Leonardo Baghin and the corps de ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

After the battle scene and snowflakes scene in Act 1, Act 2 sees Marie and the Nutcracker Prince arrive in the Land of the Sweets, presided by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Nutcracker Prince has an extensive mime scene, recounting to the Sugar Plum Fairy his battle with the Mouse King and his rescue by Marie. And after the end of the divertissements, they fly off in a sleigh pulled by a flying reindeer in a spectacular and memorable ending.

In Act 1, Balanchine’s choreography for the snowflakes waltz is very danceable. In Act 2, his choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers, featuring Dewdrop, is most inventive, with endless images flowing like a kaleidoscope. The grand pas de deux is ecstatic. The part when the Sugar Plum Fairy seems to glide forward in arabesque on pointe, by means of a clever stage effect, never ceases to amaze the audience.

In the first cast, Nicoletta Manni was radiant as the Sugar Plum Fairy, her dancing was impeccable. As her cavalier, Timofej Andrijashenko was noble and elegant. In another cast, Caterina Bianchi and Mattia Semperboni impressed as the leading pair in Act 2, though with less star quality. Martina Arduino was dazzling in her virtuosity as Dewdrop.

Giulia Consumi, Leonardo Baghin and the corps de ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photo by Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano/Teatro alla Scala

One must voice special praise for the two lead children’s roles. In the first cast, Leonardo Baghin showed exemplary good manners as the Nutcracker Prince, complementing Giulia Consumi as Marie. Edoardo Russo was charming as the Nutcracker Prince in another cast. The boys’ choir of La Scala Ballet School was excellent too in the snowflakes scene. Michail Jurowski conducted the Orchestra of La Scala Theatre, which performed superbly.