Coppélia is a village comedy with a streak of fantasy, from quarrelling lovers to dancing mechanical dolls. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production has a light touch and a sunny atmosphere, from the bouncy corps dances to Nao Sakuma’s heroine.
The story of this 19th-century classic comes from ETA Hoffman, adapted and sweetened with a score by Delibes. Coppélia herself is a doll, life-size and life-like enough to confuse the villagers when her creator Dr Coppélius sets her out on his balcony. Swanilda is indignant when the doll ignores her but jerkily blows a kiss to her boyfriend Franz. Sakuma is fresh and direct in the mime scenes, turning readily to the audience to show her outrage. She’s a gentle Swanilda, curious rather than mischievous, with delicate, airy dancing.
As Franz, Chi Cao dances and partners with clean, confident lines. He could add more flourish to Franz’s steps – it’s a swaggering character – but he’s always assured and lively. Michael O’Hare is a comic Coppélius, more eccentric than malicious. When he comes home to his workshop, he takes off his coat with elaborate care, shaking it out and folding it up – then throwing it into a corner.
In Peter Farmer’s designs, the workshop’s criss-cross beams suggest spooky recesses and indoor space, with mechanical figures framing mirrors and popping out of boxes when Swanilda and her friends set them off. Disguising herself as Coppélia, Sakuma whirls lightly through the doll dances.
The company performance is very appealing. The corps give a warm account of the Hungarian folk dances of the first act, stamping crisply in their knee-high boots. The mazurka and czárdás are led by Victoria Marr, given a flirty attitude in Peter Wright’s production. Swanilda and her friends are brisk in the “ear of corn” setpiece. The comic acting is brightly done: I love the friends sneaking into the workshop, a gaggle of girls holding hands, dragging the most timid one after them.
After the comedy, the last act is a display of dancing, as the townsfolk celebrate their new bell. Sakuma and Cao are elegant in their classical showcase, but miss the extra grandeur of this act. Farmer’s designs heighten the disconnect with the rest of the ballet. A sudden rash of Marie-Antoinette shepherdess costumes makes it hard to believe that we’re still watching the middle-European villagers from earlier in the story. The festivities are well staged, with the corps de ballet lively in the dances for work and war.
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