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Ballet's contribution to Christmas, "The Nutcracker," opened Friday evening in Shea's Buffalo Theater. In all its versions throughout its nearly 100-year history, the ballet offers audiences, at the very least, an opulence that is hard to match. It is the traditional sojourn into the Land of Sweets that serves perfectly for the confections of Christmas.

The Empire State Ballet's production, with Barbara Striegel's choreography and aesthetic eye, is no exception. Wrapped in extravagant trimmings to the scale of Shea's stage, the sets and costumes are not the least of this dreamland's coatings.

The universally familiar and thoroughly delightful music by Tchaikovsky is so much a part of this ballet's assets that the ballet undoubtedly will please on that score alone. The orchestra, under the baton of conductor Grant Cooper, proved sensitive to the dancers' needs but sounded uneven.

The Empire cast included several well-rehearsed children featured in the opening parlor scene -- Christmas Eve. The first real dancing comes when Roberta Taylor takes the stage with Harry Ferris for a pas de deux that flowed beautifully from glides along the floor into flawless lifts, with Ferris giving extra flourish as he literally tossed his partner in the air before catching her. Constantina Vaseliades, Hui Che Kueng and Heather Thomson also are notable for their characterizations as wind-up dolls.

In the Land of Snow, eight Snowflakes fell somewhat short of the blizzard stirred up by the tempestuous music we hear, something the choreography should compensate for.

But soon we were off to the Land of Sweets, where the company could do no wrong, exacting dances of different temperaments and flavors from across the world: the passionate Spanish, the sultry and intoxicating Arabians, the diligent Chinese, an explosive Russian -- with a special technical treat danced by Jiang Haibo.

"The Waltz of the Flowers," if danced as a lovely, sumptuous waltz, ballroom variety, might be able to capture Tchaikovsky's intent. For some reason, it never is -- nor is it in this production. This is the only thing this reviewer would put on the wish list for next year's production.

The Nutcracker

Empire State Ballet presents Tchaikovsky's classic full-length ballet. Choreography by Barbara Striegel, orchestra conducted by Grant Cooper.

Shea's Buffalo Theater, repeated at 2 p.m. today.

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