Coppélia, Birmingham Royal Ballet, BRB, London Coliseum, March 2012

London Coliseum audiences who went to Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann recently saw one version of Coppélia in the first act of that opera. It involves a young man who falls for a mechanical doll built by Dr. Coppélius, based on an 1816 tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann himself.

Franz and Swanilda, image Roy Smiljanic

This ballet was created in Paris in 1870 less than two months before the Franco-Prussian war started, and during the siege of Paris later that year the ballerina who created the main role, Swanilda died of smallpox on her seventeenth birthday. But the ballet with its glorious music by Delibes survived, and in 1884 Petipa re-choreographed it in St. Petersburg. Most later versions are based on his, and this is Peter Wright’s third. With glorious sets and costumes by Peter Farmer, lit by Peter Teigen, it is a sight not to be missed.

The mime element is strong and very well performed by the company. The ear of corn scene — if it rattles, his love is true — is well portrayed by Swanilda and her friends, and in this version her fiancé Franz is strongly portrayed as a ladies man (in the original ballet it was a travesti role). Chi Cao performed superbly as Franz, and his solos in Act III were terrific — those wonderful beats, particularly on the cabrioles, were a sight not to be missed. Nao Sakuma also exhibited fine technique as Swanilda, and suitable playfulness in the Act II scene in Coppelius’s workshop. Among her six friends, Maureya Lebowitz was in a class of her own — surely a dancer destined for principal roles.

The ensemble dancing was very good, and in Act I this ballet was the first to include the Hungarian Czárdás, which should be more stylishly portrayed, particularly in the slow courtly first section. Angela Paul, who also danced Dawn in Act III did well here, but in general the frisson of pride was missing. The interactions of the characters in Act I, the apparent coming to life of the doll in Act II, and the dance of the hours in Act III were all charming, and as the evening ended with a glorious pas-de-deux by Chi Cao and Nao Sakuma, the applause rang forth.

The conducting of Delibes’ music by Koen Kessels was wonderful, from the start of the prelude to the end of the ballet, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s visits to London are always a great pleasure.

Further performances of Coppélia at the London Coliseum continue until March 18 — for details click here.

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