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The Royal Ballet’s Christmas Cracker of a Coppélia
Comic ballet Coppélia is this year’s Christmas production from the Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. With a story derived from two E. T. A. Hoffmann tales, Coppélia is one of the mainstays of the classical ballet repertoire and the perfect introduction to the art form for young people. Ninette de Valois’ delightful 1954 production with its fairytale picture book designs by Osbert Lancaster hasn’t been seen for thirteen years but this revival is still full of charm and gentle humour. Coppélia had its original premiere in 1870 with a libretto by Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter and choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon but contemporary productions are built on Marius Petipa’s choreography for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg in the early 1900s. It is this Pepita version that Ninette de Valois brought back initially with her Vic-Wells Ballet and subsequently with the Royal Ballet.
From the opening French horn melodies at the start of the overture of Delibes tuneful score, you know you’re in for a treat. The story is built around three main characters; there is the Dr Coppélius with his attic full of the life-size mechanical dolls that he has created, Franz, a slightly dim-witted young man who has fallen in love with Coppélia, one of Dr Coppélius’ dolls who has only ever been seen at a distance sitting on a balcony, and finally Swanilda, a feisty young woman who was Franz’s betrothed until he lost his heart to Coppélia. It all works out in the end but not until we have had a feast of fine dancing.
Francesca Hayward as Swanilda is the star of the show. Both gamine and light-footed she brings a sense of grace to the technically challenging Pas de Deux in Act 1 and if not as coquettish as some Swanildas, there is a sense of fun and light-heartedness about her performance that lights up the stage. When she is fooling Dr Coppélius into thinking that she is the doll Coppélia come to life, she is amazingly stiff and precise in her movements in a way that barely seems human. Gary Avis makes a deliciously creepy Dr Coppélius, slithering around the stage with a cartoonish intensity, but also imbuing the character with a sense of pathos.
Alexander Campbell’s Franz is also well-acted giving off an air of dim-witted comic nobility, but he really comes into his own during the dances and his leaps in his Pas de Deux had great elevation and extension.
One of the delights seeing a top company such as the Royal Ballet is the pleasing precision of the footwork from the Corps de Ballet. They bring a refined rusticity to the folk dances very much in the Ninette de Valois tradition and create a wonderfully comic moment as the girls sneak into Dr Coppélius’ house at the start of Act II.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Barry Wordsworth acquitted themselves well but could have put a little more passion and razzmatazz into their performance and at times the lower brass felt a little ungainly.
This Coppélia is definitely worth catching – as well as live broadcasts at your local cinema and some tickets priced as low as £5 it is accessible to everyone.
Royal Opera House
Bow Street, London,
Looking for something different? We managed to catch the Birmingham Royal Ballet production of Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall last year and can heartily recommend this year’s showings. If you are looking for a pantomime, we’ve loved this year’s Cinderella at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Finally, if you are looking for a musical, we loved White Christmas, currently showing at The Dominion Theatre.