Theatre Review: Coppélia

Date Posted: 31/07/2014

Other-worldly, mesmerising escapism is how I’d describe the charming new English National Ballet production of Coppélia, says Group Leisure’s Helen Cannon.

Enchantingly danced by the young company, the audience is transported to a fantastical chocolate-box world that could have come straight off the pages of a fairy tale book.

Coppélia, one of the last surviving 19th-century comic ballets, was created in Paris by Arthur Saint-Léon and appears firmly rooted in its traditional Disney-esque past - no new or contemporary re-imagining here.

In fact it almost feels like you’ve time-travelled back and social-climbed into Victorian elite and you’re watching one of its early performances. Of course the grandeur of the London Coliseum helps with that.

Not that it is all princesses and magic. The story is of a time when automata and machines held equal fascination and trepidation amongst peoples’ imagination - Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written a few decades previously.

Coppélia’s narrative is actually inspired by Hoffman’s macabre tale, The Sandman, in which the hero is obsessed with the beautiful Olympia - reputed to be Professor Spalanzani’s daughter, but is in fact a mechanical doll who is smashed as the Professor failed to pay Coppola for supplying her eyes.

All of The Sandman’s more sinister elements have been removed and adapted into this light-hearted, almost squeaky clean comedy suitable for all ages.

Indeed I was surprised at how many children made up the matinee audience, and even more surprised at how well their attention seemed to be captured for the two and a quarter hours’ duration.

Coppélia tells the story of local girl Swanhilda who is betrothed to Franz, a handsome villager with a wandering eye. Dr Coppelius, an eccentric toymaker, creates beautiful lifelike doll, Coppelia who the villagers believe to be real and who Franz is caught ogling.

Moved by jealousy, Swanhilda and her gang (wonderfully danced with humour by the talented corp de ballet) break into Dr Coppelius’ workshop followed by Franz. They become trapped by the toymaker who is desperate to see his doll brought to life. Needless to say, this is ballet so a happy ending is ensured...just leave your modern morals at the door.  

Leo Delibes’ score is both sumptuous and playful, and the live orchestra (conducted by Tom Seligman) is a delight. The musicality and relationship between the ballet dancers and the orchestra was perfectly timed and mutually enriching, particularly noticeable during solos.

Swanhilda, danced by the neat, nimble Erina Takahashi, moved surely and lightly throughout. Her characterisation of the part got the audience on side - the intermittent pouts, crossed arms and raised shoulders directed our way raised a fair share of laughs.

Fernando Bufalá, who danced the role of Franz, stole every scene however. His easy presence, cheeky demeanour and dancing ability commanded the stage; he is surely a talent to watch. His powerful grand jetés and multiple pirouettes were faultless and it was certainly Bufalá who received the biggest ovation.

The previous night (opening performance), Franz had been danced by Carlos Acosta’s nephew Yonah, who inevitably faces being in the shadow of his famous uncle for some time. The same comparisons can’t be made of Bufalá who I thought shone in this performance.

For newcomers to ballet to the hard-core following, I’d encourage you to see this classic ballet; certainly if you are a fan of The Nutcracker, you’d enjoy this.
Coppélia isn’t trying to break any new ground, in fact it’s one of the oldest ballets in the company’s repertoire. But then if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Coppélia tour dates

•    The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton: 15th - 18th October
•    New Theatre, Oxford: 28th October - 1st November
•    Bristol Hippodrome: 4th - 8th November

Group travel organisers should contact their preferred venue for further details.

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