With its rustic village setting and light-hearted romantic story, Coppelia seems like the perfect ballet for spring. It tells the story of young lovers Swanilda and Franz, who are set at odds by the arrival of a beautiful but oddly motionless girl on the balcony of the house belonging to the eccentric Dr Coppelius. Jealous at Franz’s flirting with the mysterious girl and full of curiosity, Swanilda and her friends break into the house and discover that the young woman (Coppelia) is in fact a doll. When Dr Coppelius returns, the girls are scared away – all except Swanilda, who dresses in Coppelia’s clothes and pretends to come to life under the influence of the doctor’s incantations. Which is handy, because Franz is also discovered breaking into the house in search of Coppelia, and needs Swanilda’s quick wit to save him from Dr Coppelius’ drugged wine. The ballet concludes with a village festival celebrating the new church bell (I have no idea why) and Franz and Swanilda finally declare their love.
This production by Peter Wright features beautifully detailed, glowing set designs – including a silk backdrop in the style of an old-fashioned storybook cover – and pretty, summery-coloured costumes. Act I is prompt in introducing us to the lead characters, beginning with Swanilda (Samara Downs) attempting to befriend Coppelia and becoming increasingly frustrated as her polite greetings and lively, complicated footwork are ignored. This dramatic irony is amplified by Dr Coppelius appearing on the balcony to adjust Coppelia’s hair or book every time Swanilda’s back is turned. Comedy is a key component of this ballet, and this production exploits every opportunity for it – when Swanilda and her friends enter Dr Coppelius’ house at the close of the act, they hold hands and creep through the door in a line, with the last girl pausing to cross herself before entering. Franz (Jamie Bond) repeats Swanilda’s experience, bowing to Coppelia with a flamboyant flick of the leg and pulling out some big leaps – yet the doll remains unmoved, while Swanilda is enraged at his disloyalty. (I can’t say I blame her.) She quickly forgives him though, and they dance a charming pas de deux interlaced with supporting variations from her friends. Outside of the narrative action, there are two lively, whirling national dances for the corps de ballet: a mazurka and a czardas, both strongly reminiscent of Swan Lake.
Act II sees Swanilda transform from a flirtatious, reckless ringleader into a doll – her initial solo is all jerky, mechanical movements and flexed feet as ‘Coppelia’ learns how to move. These movements rapidly become smoother and more natural, and soon Swanilda is tearing around Dr Coppelius’ study, ripping up books and setting off the other dolls in an attempt to distract the old man while she tries to revive the lifeless Franz. Samara Downs does an excellent job of portraying the spirited Swanilda, but the climax to Act II is over far too quickly and effectively deprives the audience of two key dramatic moments: the joy of Franz waking and realising who his saviour is – and where his heart truly lies – and the heartbreaking sadness of Dr Coppelius discovering that his beloved doll hasn’t come to life at all. This tendency to brush over the darker side to the story continues into Act III, where the enraged doctor is given a bag of money in compensation for his loss and then forgotten about until the very end. Even then, he is merely pulled onto a cart with Swanilda and Franz and driven off into the distance. There’s so much potential for real poignancy here, and it’s wasted.
The majority of Act III is taken up by the bell festival, a series of divertissements demonstrating how the bell will be put to use: striking the hours, calling the villagers to prayer and to work, announcing betrothals and summoning the men to arms. It has nothing to do with the main plot, but it’s all very pretty: twelve ballerinas in gorgeous dresses mark the hours by dancing steps consecutively, while the symbolic figure of Prayer serenely bourrées and performs promenades en arabesque. Swanilda and Franz conclude the festival by dancing a pas de deux intended to symbolise the bell ringing to declare peace, and demonstrating their own, newfound bliss. Unfortunately, nerves seem to take hold of the lead pair and both their adagio duet and solos are somewhat lacklustre. Even performed to perfection however, this pas de deux doesn’t really carry the choreographic weight required to produce a showstopping finale. To me, Coppelia is an ensemble ballet – it is driven by the mechanics of the story, built on group dances and comic interaction, and there are few opportunities for individuals to shine in solo dances or duets. Even the Act I pas de deux, normally designed to showcase the leads, is broken up by dances from Swanilda’s friends – though it has to be said that whether giggling, conspiring or consoling, these six girls are one of the standout features of the ballet, energetic and utterly recognisable from real life.
Like Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, Coppelia is a charming and deceptively difficult ballet – all that smiling, light-hearted ‘effortlessness’ requires immense strength and energy to maintain, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers do a fantastic job overall. But – dare I admit it – I left The Lowry feeling vaguely unsatisfied, as if I’d just had a dessert that was delicious but far too small. Maybe it’s because there is no bravura pas de deux in the mould of Don Quixote or Swan Lake; maybe it’s because there’s no exploration of what happens to Dr Coppelius after he loses his doll; or maybe it’s simply because I prefer my ballets with a darker, more overtly emotional edge. I wonder what Coppelia would look like if Matthew Bourne got his hands on it…