Mar 112017
 

On this date in 1851 Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered in Venice. I’ve already highlighted Verdi — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/giuseppe-verdi/  — and the post included a brief nod to Rigoletto because it was a milestone in the development of opera, not only intertwining complex dramatic elements but also showcasing a variety of musical styles, not least being the eternal favorite “La donna è mobile” (whose title I used just this week in pointing out the difference to my students in the use of the direct article in English and Italian). I’m not inclined to do a massive analysis of Rigoletto here, but I do feel the need to say something given that I live right behind a museum called “Rigoletto’s House” (opposite palazzo ducale), touristic tribute to the fact that the opera is set in Mantua.

Rigoletto was set in Mantua, in the long past, to escape problems with Austrian censors. Verdi was commissioned to write a new opera by the La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1850. By this time he was already a well-known composer and had a degree of freedom in choosing the works he would prefer to set to music. He then asked Francesco Maria Piave (with whom he had already created Ernani, I due Foscari, Macbeth, Il Corsaro and Stiffelio) to examine the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas, père, but he was not happy with the subject matter. Then Verdi stumbled upon Victor Hugo’s five-act play Le roi s’amuse. He later explained that “The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history.” It was a highly controversial subject, and Hugo himself had already had trouble with censorship in France, which had banned productions after its first performance nearly twenty years earlier (it would not be performed again until 1882). As Austria at that time directly controlled much of Northern Italy, it came before the Austrian Board of Censors. Hugo’s play depicted a king (Francis I of France) as an immoral and cynical womanizer, and this subject did not sit well with the powers that be.

From the beginning, Verdi was aware of the risks, as was Piave. In a letter which Verdi wrote to Piave: “Use four legs, run through the town and find me an influential person who can obtain the permission for making Le Roi s’amuse.” Correspondence between a prudent Piave and an already committed Verdi followed, but the two underestimated the power and the intentions of Austrians and remained at risk. Even the friendly Guglielmo Brenna, secretary of La Fenice, who had promised them that they would not have problems with the censors, was wrong. At the beginning of the summer of 1850, rumors started to spread that Austrian censorship was going to forbid the production. The censors considered the Hugo work to verge on lèse majesté and would never permit such a scandalous work to be performed in Venice. In August, Verdi and Piave prudently retired to Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, to continue the composition and prepare a defensive scheme. They wrote to the theater, assuring them that the censor’s doubts about the morality of the work were not justified but since very little time was left, very little could be done. At the time, Piave and Verdi had titled the opera La maledizione (The Curse), and this unofficial title was used by Austrian censor De Gorzkowski in an emphatic letter written in December 1850 in which he definitively denied consent to its production, calling it “a repugnant [example of] immorality and obscene triviality.”

By January 1851 the parties were able to agree that the action of the opera would be moved from the royal court of France to a duchy of France or Italy, and some of the characters would have to be renamed. In the new version the Duke reigns over Mantua and belongs to the Gonzaga family. The House of Gonzaga had long been extinct by the mid-19th century, and the Dukedom of Mantua no longer existed, thus no one could be offended. So, even though the connexion with Mantua is purely pragmatic and not motivated by any dramatic necessity, we reap the benefit.

Rigoletto premiered on 11 March 1851 to a sold-out La Fenice as the first part of a double bill with Giacomo Panizza’s ballet Faust. Gaetano Mares conducted, and the sets were designed and executed by Giuseppe Bertoja and Francesco Bagnara. The opening night was a complete triumph, especially the scena drammatica and the Duke’s cynical aria, “La donna è mobile”, which was sung in the streets the next morning. Verdi had maximised the aria’s impact by revealing it to the cast and orchestra only a few hours before the premiere, and forbidding them to sing, whistle or even think of the melody outside of the theater. Many years later, Giulia Cora Varesi, the daughter of Felice Varesi (the original Rigoletto), described her father’s performance at the premiere. Varesi was very uncomfortable with the false hump he had to wear. He was so uncertain that, even though he was an experienced singer, he had a panic attack when it was his turn to enter the stage. Verdi immediately realized he was paralyzed and roughly pushed him on the stage, so he appeared with a clumsy tumble. The audience, thinking it was an intentional gag, was very amused

Numerous tenors and sopranos have performed the key roles and there are many recordings to choose from.  This one amuses me. It’s not stellar but I rather dislike Pavarotti’s renditions which are everywhere.  In his earlier years (in the 1960s) he was great, but fame got to him, I fear, and by the time he was a household name, in my oh so humble opinion, he had developed an oversized ego (and body) and an undersized style corrupted by a desire to please audience with cheap theatrics.  I’ll take Caruso (or most any other tenor) any day of the week and twice on Sundays over Pavarotti.

A Venetian dish might be in order given the location of the premiere, but I like Mantuan cuisine and the opera is set here.  So let’s go with another Mantuan specialty, luccio in salsa (pike in sauce). I’m sure you can make a reasonable simulacrum, but without Garda Lake pike and Italian anchovies it won’t be the same.  Pike is not an easy fish to prepare because it is riddled with small epipleural or Y-bones. It is best to get fillets from large fish and inspect them carefully, removing any bones you find with tweezers.

Luccio in Salsa

Ingredients

½ kg pike fillets
1 onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste

150 g salted anchovies
150 g capers
150 g fresh parsley
extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Poach the fish gently in a pan with the water and wine plus the onion, carrot and celery all cut in large chunks. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Finely chop the capers, parsley and anchovies. Then mix in olive oil to taste. Too little oil will make the sauce over salty.

Separate the fillets into medium-sized pieces, place them on a serving dish and pour over the sauce. Let the fish and sauce rest so that the flavors marry.  Some Mantuan cooks mash the fish slightly with a fork and then add the sauce.

Serve with toasted polenta.

Apr 132016
 

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Messiah (HWV 56) by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer, was first performed in Dublin on this date in 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Handel’s reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, had been established through his compositions of Italian opera. He turned to English oratorio in the 1730s in response to changes in public taste. Works such as John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/john-gay/ )signaled a general move away from Italian opera in England. Messiah was Handel’s sixth work in this genre. Although its structure resembles that of opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens’ text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah. The text begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds, the only “scene” taken from the Gospels. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.

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Jennens

Charles Jennens was born around 1700, into a prosperous landowning family whose lands and properties in Warwickshire and Leicestershire he eventually inherited. His religious and political views—he opposed the Act of Settlement of 1701 which secured the accession to the British throne for the House of Hanover—prevented him from receiving his degree from Oxford University, or from pursuing any form of public career. His family’s wealth enabled him to live a life of leisure while devoting himself to his literary and musical interests. He was devoted to Handel’s music, having helped to finance the publication of every Handel score since Rodelinda in 1725. By 1741, after their collaboration on Saul, a warm friendship had developed between the two, and Handel was a frequent visitor to the Jennens’ family estate at Gopsall.

Jennens’ letter to Holdsworth of 10 July 1741, in which he first mentions Messiah, suggests that the text was a recent work, probably assembled earlier that summer. As a devout Anglican and believer in scriptural authority, part of Jennens’ intention was to challenge advocates of Deism, who rejected the doctrine of divine intervention in human affairs. There is no evidence that Handel played any active role in the selection or preparation of the text, such as he did in the case of Saul.

The music for Messiah was completed in just 24 days. Having received Jennens’ text some time after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed Part I in outline by 28 August, Part II by 6 September and Part III by 12 September, followed by two days of “filling up” to produce the finished work on 14 September. The autograph score’s 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors.

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At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters “SDG”—Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory”. The effort of writing so much music in so short a time was not unusual for Handel and his contemporaries; Handel commenced his next oratorio, Samson, within a week of finishing Messiah, and completed his draft of this new work in a month. In accordance with his frequent practice when writing new works, Handel adapted existing compositions for use in Messiah, in this case drawing on two recently completed Italian duets and one written twenty years previously. Thus, Se tu non lasci amore from 1722 became the basis of “O Death, where is thy sting?”; “His yoke is easy” and “And he shall purify” were drawn from Quel fior che alla’ride (July 1741), “Unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” from Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi (July 1741). Handel’s instrumentation in the score is often imprecise, again in line with contemporary convention, where the use of certain instruments and combinations was assumed and did not need to be written down by the composer; later copyists would fill in the details.

Before the first performance Handel made numerous revisions to his manuscript score, in part to match the forces available for the 1742 Dublin premiere; it is probable that his work was not performed as originally conceived in his lifetime. Between 1742 and 1754 he continued to revise and recompose individual movements, sometimes to suit the requirements of particular singers. The first published score of Messiah was issued in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death, though this was based on relatively early manuscripts and included none of Handel’s later revisions.

Handel’s decision to give a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 arose from an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. A violinist friend of Handel’s, Matthew Dubourg, was in Dublin as the Lord Lieutenant’s bandmaster; he would look after the tour’s orchestral requirements. Whether Handel originally intended to perform Messiah in Dublin is uncertain; he did not inform Jennens of any such plan, for the latter wrote to Holdsworth on 2 December 1741: “… it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it.” After arriving in Dublin on 18 November 1741, Handel arranged a subscription series of six concerts, to be held between December 1741 and February 1742 at the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street. These concerts were so popular that a second series was quickly arranged; Messiah figured in neither series.

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In early March Handel began discussions with the appropriate committees for a charity concert, to be given in April, at which he intended to present Messiah. He sought and was given permission from St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion. These forces amounted to 16 men and 16 boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio, who had sung the main soprano roles in the two subscription series, and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto who had sung in the second series. To accommodate Cibber’s vocal range, the recitative “Then shall the eyes of the blind” and the aria “He shall feed his flock” were transposed down to F major. The performance, also in the Fishamble Street hall, was originally announced for 12 April, but was deferred for a day “at the request of persons of Distinction”. The orchestra in Dublin comprised strings, two trumpets, and timpani; the number of players is unknown. Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances; a harpsichord was probably also used.

The three charities that were to benefit were prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as “… far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”. Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted to the concert, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crouded Audience”. A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber’s rendering of “He was despised” that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.

Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual pieces. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions, although “big Messiah” productions continue to be mounted.

Here’s two of my favorite selections from a “period” performance led by Stephen Cleobury who at the time was the musical director at King’s College Cambridge.  The full performance is here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTMJVvld9ok&nohtml5=False

Whilst we are in the mood for recreating the feeling of Georgian music recitals, here’s a period piece in food – skirret pie. Sium sisarum, commonly known as skirret, is a perennial plant of the family Apiaceae once grown as a root vegetable. The English name skirret is derived from the Middle English ‘skirwhit’ or ‘skirwort’, meaning ‘white root’. In Scotland it is known as crummock. Its Danish name sukkerrod, Dutch name suikerwortel and German name “Zuckerwurzel” translate as ‘sugar root’. Skirret has a cluster of bright white, sweetish, somewhat aromatic roots, each approximately 15-20 cm in length. They were once commonly used as a vegetable in the same manner as the common salsify, black salsify and the parsnip, but eventually they were surpassed by potatoes. I have no idea if you could ever find skirrets for sale in a market, but you can buy the seeds online.

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I’m giving two period recipes here. They are similar in that they are both quite sweet and laden with sweet spices and candied fruits, as was customary for Georgian savory dishes. The second recipe calls for another obsolete vegetable – eryngo. Eryngium campestre, known as field eryngo, is a species of Eryngium, which was used medicinally. The basal leaves are long-stalked, pinnate and spiny, and can be made into an herbal tea. The roots were usually candied.

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Skirret Pie

Boil your biggest skirrets and blanch and season them with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a very little ginger and sugar. Your pye being ready lay in your skirrets; season also the marrow of three or four bones with cinnamon, sugar, a little salt and grated bread. Lay the marrow in your pye and the yolks of hard eggs, a handful of chestnuts boiled and blanched, and some candied orange-peel in slices. Lay butter on the top and lid your pye. Let your caudle be white wine and sugar, thicken it with the yolks of eggs, and when the pye is baked pour it in and serve it hot. Scrape sugar on it.

Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, (1727)

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A Skirret Pye

Take the largest skirrets you can get & parboyle them & peel them & season them with cinnimon & powder sugar & put them in a dish with a good deal of fresh butter & some sliced citron & candid orange peel & candid eringoroot, 3 spoonfulls of rose water, 4 of white wine, some Jerusalem hartichokes boyled & sliced. Make it with cold butter paste. When it coms out of the oven, have ready a caudle made of half a pint of sack, some sugar & nutmeg & the yolks of 4 eggs & a print of butter poured on it very hot & the lid laid on it again.

Cookbook of Unknown Ladies (c. 1761)

Dec 182015
 

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The Nutcracker was given its première at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on this date in 1892. It was a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (op. 71). The libretto is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It was featured on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta. Although the original production was not a success, the 20-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. The complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the late 1960s and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season, especially in North America. Major North American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.

It took me a long time to find a way to write about The Nutcracker sensibly. Its annual presentation by the Conservatory where I taught for 15 years, killed it stone dead for me. Familiarity breeds contempt in this case. It was a money spinner, plain and simple, with recorded music and mostly student performers (of all ages). I was once asked to perform, but around the time I was asked, my phone and email mysteriously stopped working. Not a brilliant ruse, but it worked. The combination of being on the fringes of the production for years, Disney’s mangling of it in Fantasia, endless television ads at Christmas featuring snippets of the music, and so forth makes me want to throw things. So . . . I sat down calmly yesterday and watched this version of the ballet (from the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, December 2012) trying to bring fresh eyes and ears to it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtLoaMfinbU

I think I succeeded to a degree and can write about it without doing harm to myself and others. I still don’t like the ballet much – disjointed and overly sentimental. But I understand why I liked the music as a youngster. The music of the second act is certainly evocative in places, with interesting (for the time), harmonies and tone colors. My old affection for the Arabian Dance returned, but the rest is still too sugary and overly familiar.

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After the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be Iolanta. For the ballet, Tchaikovsky again joined forces with Marius Petipa, with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty. The material Petipa chose was an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandre Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker. The plot of Hoffmann’s story (and Dumas’ adaptation) was greatly simplified for the two-act ballet. Hoffmann’s tale contains a long flashback story within its main plot entitled The Tale of the Hard Nut, which explains how the Prince was turned into a nutcracker. This had to be excised for the ballet.

Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The completion of the work was interrupted for a short time when Tchaikovsky visited the United States for twenty-five days to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall and he composed parts of The Nutcracker in Rouen.

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Although the libretto was by Marius Petipa, who exactly choreographed the first production has been debated. Petipa began work on the choreography in August 1892; however, illness removed him from its completion and his assistant of seven years, Lev Ivanov, was brought in. Although Ivanov is often credited as the choreographer, some contemporary accounts credit Petipa. The performance was conducted by Riccardo Drigo, with Antonietta Dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Coqueluche, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker-Prince, and Timofey Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer. The children’s roles, unlike many later productions, were performed by real children rather than adults (with Belinskaya as Clara, and Vassily Stukolkin as Fritz), students of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg.

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The first performance of The Nutcracker was not deemed a success. The reaction to the dancers themselves was mixed. While some critics praised Dell’Era on her pointework as the Sugar Plum Fairy (she allegedly received five curtain-calls), one critic called her “corpulent” and “podgy.” Olga Preobrajenskaya as the Columbine doll was panned by one critic as “completely insipid” and praised as “charming” by another. Alexandre Benois described the choreography of the battle scene as confusing: “One can not understand anything. Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish.”

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The libretto was criticized for being “lopsided” and for not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Much of the criticism focused on the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet, and many bemoaned the fact that the ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux near the end of the second act (which did not occur until nearly midnight during the program). Some found the transition between the mundane world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt. Reception was better for Tchaikovsky’s score. Some critics called it “astonishingly rich in detailed inspiration” and “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic.” But even this was not unanimous as some critics found the party scene “ponderous” and the Grand Pas de Deux “insipid.” My own response is much the same as these early critics, especially since I’ve suffered through too many performances using children dancers (to advertize my Conservatory’s money-making children’s dance school, and guarantee audiences of doting parents).

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In 1919, choreographer Alexander Gorsky staged a production which eliminated the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier and gave their dances to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, who were played by adults instead of children. His was the first production to do so. An abridged version of the ballet was first performed outside Russia in Budapest (Royal Opera House) in 1927, with choreography by Ede Brada. In 1934, choreographer Vasili Vainonen staged a version of the work that addressed many of the criticisms of the original 1892 production by casting adult dancers in the roles of Clara and the Prince, as Gorsky had. The Vainonen version influenced several later productions.

Here is a synopsis based on the original 1892 libretto by Marius Petipa. The story varies from production to production, though most follow the basic outline. The names of the characters also vary. In the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the young heroine is called Marie Stahlbaum and Clara (Klärchen) is her doll’s name. In the adaptation by Dumas on which Petipa based his libretto, her name is Marie Silberhaus. In still other productions, such as Baryshnikov’s, Clara is Clara Stahlbaum rather than Clara Silberhaus.

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Act I

Scene 1: The Stahlbaum Home

It is Christmas Eve. Family and friends have gathered in the parlor to decorate the beautiful Christmas tree in preparation for the party. Once the tree is finished, the children are sent for. They stand in awe of the tree sparkling with candles and decorations.

The party begins. A march is played. Presents are given out to the children. Suddenly, as the owl-topped grandmother clock strikes eight, a mysterious figure enters the room. It is Drosselmeyer, a local councilman, magician, and Clara’s godfather. He is also a talented toymaker who has brought with him gifts for the children, including four lifelike dolls who dance to the delight of all. He then has them put away for safekeeping.

Clara and Fritz are sad to see the dolls being taken away, but Drosselmeyer has yet another toy for them: a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of a little man, used for cracking nuts. The other children ignore it, but Clara immediately takes a liking to it. Fritz, however, purposely breaks it. Clara is heartbroken.

During the night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Clara returns to the parlor to check on her beloved nutcracker. As she reaches the little bed, the clock strikes midnight and she looks up to see Drosselmeyer perched atop it. Suddenly, mice begin to fill the room and the Christmas tree begins to grow to dizzying heights. The nutcracker also grows to life size. Clara finds herself in the midst of a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers and the mice, led by their Tsar. They begin to eat the soldiers.

The nutcracker appears to lead the soldiers, who are joined by tin ones and dolls who serve as doctors to carry away the wounded. As the Mouse Tsar advances on the still-wounded nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, distracting him long enough for the nutcracker to stab him.

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Scene 2: A Pine Forest

The mice retreat and the nutcracker is transformed into a handsome Prince. He leads Clara through the moonlit night to a pine forest in which the snowflakes dance around them, beckoning them on to his kingdom as the first act ends.

Act II

Scene 1: The Land of Sweets

Clara and the Prince travel to the beautiful Land of Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in his place until his return. He recounts for her how he had been saved from the Mouse King by Clara and had been transformed back into his own self.

In honor of the young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced: chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and candy canes from Russia all dance for their amusement; Danish shepherdesses perform on their flutes; Mother Ginger has her children, the Polichinelles, emerge from under her enormous hoop skirt to dance; a string of beautiful flowers perform a waltz. To conclude the night, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier perform a dance.

A final waltz is performed by all the sweets, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy ushers Clara and the Prince down from their throne. He bows to her, she kisses Clara goodbye, and leads them to a reindeer drawn sleigh. It takes off as they wave goodbye to all the subjects who wave back.

I gave a recipe for sugar plums in my post on Fantasia (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/fantasia/ ), but in doing a bit more digging, I find that there is more to their history than I originally thought. The recipe I gave there for a sweet, spicy mix of ground fruits and nuts is one of many possibilities (sometimes called Byzantine sugar plums), and it’s quite likely that in 19th century Russia sugar plums were hard sweets. In England and elsewhere in Europe they could also be sugared almonds, known sometimes as Jordan almonds.

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Here is an excellent site that unpacks the whole story:

http://www.historicfood.com/Comfits.htm

Here’s a good video if you want to make them at home.