Doll-lightful: crisp, theatrical, and full of character
Coppélia is a classic that seems to have fallen out of favour: on the cusp between the era of other-worldly Romantic ballet and the Imperial Russian classics, Coppélia has neither La Sylphide‘s spirits or the ghostly tragedy of Giselle, nor the nostalgia of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake‘s love story, or the spectacle of The Sleeping Beauty, but it does have an effortless charm and exquisite score that make it so danceable and delightful to see. Maybe it suffers, in a somewhat Shakespearean way, from being a romantic comedy: is its tale – of lovers at loggerheads over one’s dalliance with a Dr’s doll – too twee? Its roles – a sugar-sweet, sassy soubrette in Swanilda, her flirty, fickle fiancé Franz, and crackpot creator Dr Coppélius – too routine? Or even its structure, with three acts characterised by character dances and divertissements, too simple? There’s a sense that Coppélia could be more of a sleeping beauty than Aurora, stuck in a bygone age of classical ballet and as mechanical as its eponymous doll, but Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performance of Sir Peter Wright’s picturesque production awakens the magic and keeps this classic Coppélia very much alive.
Being a comedy doesn’t make Coppélia as a production any less complex, and in their spirited performance, the company prove it: the choreography – a mingling of old masters – is crisp, controlled, and well-acted, Delibes’ score – played with flair by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – is evocative, theatrical and full of character, and Peter Farmer’s candy-coloured costumes and sumptuous sets paint a pretty pastoral picture where the characters can come alive.
And alive they are: Céline Gittens’ Swanilda is not only a sassy soubrette, but adorably stroppy, delightfully deceptive, and supremely expressive; she is loveable without ever losing her strong technical prowess, particularly impressive in her développé and penché display as a doll whilst admiring herself in the mirror, her magnificent pirouettes en manége and her hops en pointe in the final act. Less loveable is Franz, but Tyrone Singleton suffuses him with an Acostan charm, comedic timing, technical command in his leaps and turns and the kind of supportive partnering that make him a catch. And Michael O’Hare is a masterclass in character acting as the derisory, crackpot doll-maker Dr Coppélius, his actions big enough for the back row but expressions detailed enough draw you closer.
The acting of the whole corps is charming and earns some hearty laughs, especially for Franz and his love-ladder, Swanilda and her friends causing chaos in the workshop, and Dr Coppélius’ slap across the face from a “Coppélia” he’s struggling to control, and even some unexpected ones: the last lift of the wedding pas de deux is welcomed by a chuckle, an echo of Coppélia being lifted by Dr Coppélius, except here it’s full of life – and love – and the audience laughter is a warm reminder of the larks that came before and the delight yet to come for the married couple. It’s a real romantic comedy.
Away from the romance, the character dances evoke the lively village of Act I in the claps and whirls of the mazurka and czárdás, and the divertissements in Act III, especially the Waltz of the Hours, Karla Doorbar’s light and delicate Dawn, and Delia Mathews’ smooth and spiritual Prayer, sweep one up in the ceremonial celebrations. And, although like most classics, there must be room for a reimagining – the inanimate coming to life must be one of the easier stories from the classical canon to imagine happening in real life, rather than falling in love with swans or sleeping for a century – perhaps even a contemporary adaptation alongside the classical one à la English National Ballet’s Giselles, its character – knee-knocking mime and all – is central to its charm. And what a charming Coppélia this is.