“[W]hat I see around me is a lot of choreographers who are destroying the classics. I wish that, instead of doing Sleeping Beauty
in some crazy new way, they would just go and invent their own full-length ballet story ... Maybe I am just old fashioned. I know you have to go forward, but there is a reason why these ballets are called classic. They are magical.” [Ballerina, Daria Klimentová, quoted in The Times
, 9 June 2014, p.15.]
To be fair to both Ms Klimentová and the production of Coppélia
under review, she did add the proviso that her remarks were directed at national
ballet companies. They, she suggests, have a duty to preserve traditional versions of "classic" ballets. Small, independent companies, on the other hand - such as Matthew Bourne's enormously successful New Adventures
in the UK or Spain's highly regarded Victor Ullate Ballet Communidad de Madrid
- are better placed, in Ms Klimentová's view, to experiment with more off-the-wall concepts.
The more eagle-eyed among you will have already noticed, simply by scanning the cast list above, that the Victor Ullate company's version of Coppélia
certainly does have more than a few unconventional features. It is, indeed, a case of Hamlet
without the prince, for the expected leading character, the spunky village girl Swanhilde who battles the eponymous doll for her boyfriend's affections, is completely missing. That cast list offers even more puzzles. If there is no Swanhilde, it seems logical to assume that her usual - and traditionally unnamed - group of friends will be absent too. In that case, who are Betty, Rosi and Andreina, how does a D.J. fit into the story and what on earth is the Spectral Diva?
Before we even slot the disc into the player, then, we can assume that this is going to be an unconventional production of this favourite classical ballet. On watching it, our expectations are immediately and amply confirmed. The familiar setting of a picturesque, bucolic 19th century village in Polish Galicia has been jettisoned. The new setting is a laboratory-cum-factory, of indeterminate but vaguely futuristic date, that produces automata and is owned by the inventor Dr Coppélius. Our hero, Franz has meanwhile become the supervisor of the lab's cleaning team and has fallen in love with one of the proprietor's creations. Thankfully, the unexpected but welcome intervention of a deus ex machina
, in the form of the aforementioned Spectral Diva, brings the doll in question to life. Franz, aided and abetted by cheerfully slapdash cleaners Betty, Rosi and Andreina, thereupon uses the occasion of a product launch party - ergo
the record-spinning D.J. - to free her from Coppélius's clutches. We are left to assume that he and his beloved live happily ever after, which is certainly more than I've ever been able to imagine when contemplating the original Coppélia
's self-assertively feisty Swanhilde and her Franz of the wandering eye.
Quite apart from changing the original story's setting and characters, you'll have noted that this production actually reverses some of its fundamental premises. At the conventional Coppélia
's dramatic climax, for example, the real-life girl "becomes" the doll so as to thwart the deranged scientist’s schemes; here, on the contrary, it is a case of the doll being transformed into a living human being. In another significant reverse, this production sees the boy saving the girl from enslavement by Dr Coppélius's perverse experimentation, rather than, as we usually find, the other way around.
Although this production is undeniably, when taken as a whole, innovative and original, I also found that it occasionally brought a few cross-cultural references to mind. Anyone, for instance, who enjoys Matthew Bourne's iconoclastic, yet pointedly witty, takes on classical ballet will certainly find this Spanish production's approach sympathique
. Meanwhile, the many fans of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
may find that the on-stage antics - and, indeed, even the make-up - of Betty, Rosi and Andreina bring the "Trocks" irresistibly to mind. While some of Doctor Who's more flamboyant past incarnations are suggested by Dr Coppélius's characterisation and costume, film buffs confronted by the Spectral Diva's enormous cloak will perhaps be reminded of Oberon's even larger one in the 1935 Warner Bros. production A Midsummer Night's Dream
. It’s a glorious film, by the way, and one that features its own exquisite Bronislava Nijinska-choreographed ballet sequence, danced by Nina Theilade and, as they used to say, a cast of thousands.
The innovative overall approach works surprisingly well. The new storyline is more straightforward and coherent than many director-led modernising revisions tend to be. Although Delibes's delightful and irresistibly foot-tapping score has been re-ordered quite substantially in order to fit the amended scenario, all the renowned showstoppers that make Coppélia
a favourite with radio presenters all over the world - including, no doubt, Polish Galicia - are still there.
Apart from the changed narrative and the striking set designs, this performance is also memorable for its skilled execution. The dancers maintain a uniformly high technical and artistic standard, though this is very much a company production rather than one of individual stars. I felt rather as one does when emerging from, say, Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!
or his Swan Lake
, where the lively scenes involving, respectively, the child orphans and the swans, often make the greatest impact. Given, in fact, that the doll only comes to life some way into the show - before which, in her automaton persona, she moves jerkily and clumsily - this Coppélia
offers relatively few opportunities for much in the way of lushly romantic lovers' encounters. Instead, the emphasis is very much on beefing up the story's comic elements, which is achieved with great success.
As is so often the case with other innovative versions of classic ballets or operas, this new release may not necessarily be the best choice for someone coming new to Coppélia.
Anyone looking for something a little more mainstream need not worry, however, because there are several more conventional accounts that are worth watching. My particular favourite version on DVD stars pocket spitfire Nadia Nerina in a slightly abridged BBC television broadcast from the late 1950s (ICAD 5058, see here
), though anyone averse to black-and-white TV transmissions will need to look elsewhere. Another version that has given me a great deal of pleasure is from the Paris Opera Ballet school's students, recorded in 2003 (TDK DV-BLCOP), in which the young dancers' sheer enthusiasm and obvious pleasure in performing in front of an enthusiastic live audience - presumably including their proud mamans
- is ideally suited to Delibes's lively and colourful score.
This new Coppélia
deserves, nonetheless, a very warm welcome. It undoubtedly offers an attractive and highly diverting alternative vision of the piece and, as such, is a worthwhile 21st century supplement to the long performing tradition of what Daria Klimentová would certainly describe as "magical" and classic ballet.