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Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia, ballet in three Acts
Choreography by Marius Petipa and Enrico Cecchetti
Swanilda: Margarita Shrayner, Frantz: Artem Ovcharenko, Coppelius: Alexey Loparevich, Swanilda’s friends: Xenia Averina, Daria Bochkova, Bruna Cantanhede Gaglianone, Antonina Chapkina, Anastasia Denisova, Elizaveta Kruteleva, Svetlana Pavlova, Yulia Skvortsova, Coppélia (automaton): Nadezhda Blagova, Lord of the manor: Alexander Fadeyechev, Burgomaster: Yuri Ostrovsky, Chronos: Nikolay Mayorov, Mazurka: Oksana Sharova, Alexander Vodopetov, Ekaterina Besedina, Dmitry Ekaterinin, Czardas: Kristina Karasyova, Vitali Biktimirov, Dawn: Anastasia Denisova, Prayer: Antonina Chapkina, Work: Daria Bochkova, Ksenia Averina, Maria Mishina, Stanislava Postnova, Tatiana Tiliguzova, Folly: Elizaveta Kruteleva
Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre/Pavel Sorokin
rec. Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, June 2018
Video: 1 BD25, colour, 16:9
Audio: 2.0 PCM and 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Region: A / B / C
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC463 [100 mins]

As dance companies around the world well know, Tchaikovsky’s three ballets are guaranteed to put bottoms on theatre seats. The attraction is, primarily, the gorgeous music and you’ll always hear audiences humming those oh-so-familiar tunes as they emerge from the auditorium. As a regular ballet-goer of many years, however, I’ve very often noticed that those same audiences don’t always have the big smiles on their faces that you might have expected. That, I think, is because, even while Tchaikovsky’s scores are trying to sweep us up into the drama, the Swan lake, Sleeping beauty and Nutcracker stories are, in at least one major respect, somewhat uninvolving. While we may follow the carryings-on of the fairies, witches, spellbound wildfowl and the rest with interest and, hopefully, enjoyment, we don’t think of the on-stage characters as real and believable people who share our own very human faults, foibles and frailties. Characters like Odette, Prince Désiré or the Nutcracker are little more than the passive tools of supernatural forces outside their own control or mere victims of “Fate”. As a result, we observe them in a somewhat detached way, rather than recognising them as fellow human beings possessed of free will to act on their own terms - and that in turn prevents us from fully engaging and empathising with them in their various predicaments.

Watch, on the other hand, such ballets as Don Quixote, La fille mal gardée or Coppélia and you’ll find audiences exiting the theatre with faces registering the huge fun that they’ve had. Of course, each of those three is quite deliberately comic in tone, which certainly helps. But, beyond that, each also portrays recognisable people who experience real and familiar emotions when faced with everyday dilemmas (often of the romantic variety) and go on to react to those problems in much the same way as we might do ourselves. Isn’t there something more appealing to our common sense of humanity when a ballet’s central characters are of the type we might actually know – or even aspire to be – like spunky Swanhilda or Basil the chirpy barber? Even less-likeable characters can aspire to such realism. Unlike Tchaikovsky’s demonic lakeshore magicians, jealously malevolent fairies or belligerent crowned rodents, the villains in those other three ballets are the sort of people you might actually encounter giving you grief in your own everyday life: meddling parents, unwanted admirers, annoying neighbours, philandering partners or even larcenous muggers.

Apart from its cast of appealingly engaging and recognisable characters – heroic, villainous or, like most us, located somewhere in the middle - Coppélia’s great strength lies in Delibes’s masterly score. While the foot-tapping occupants of the front stalls won’t need any convincing of that fact, one expert commentator gets it absolutely spot on: “[h]is orchestration has gusto, clarity, and often considerable originality, his tunes have charm, and, above all, his music at its best has a ‘lift’ that makes it eminently suitable for dancing. To hear the mazurka from Coppélia for the first time is an enviable experience…” (Roger Fiske Ballet music [London, 1958], p. 22).

Coppélia has, then, a lot going for it and its positive qualities are shown off particularly well by a couple of features specific to the Bolshoi Ballet production under consideration.

In the first place this production is bright and colourful, with expertly dressed and well-lit sets that are entirely appropriate matches for the light-hearted vivacity of the ballet’s subject-matter and score. Meanwhile, the attractive primary-coloured costumes are convincingly ethnic and just as we imagine they would be in a clearly rather prosperous Galician village (it does, after all, boast a very well accoutred resident cavalry regiment). The appropriateness of bright light and colour to a story of jolly japes would, you might think, be obvious - but it’s clearly not. For example, the Royal Ballet’s sets and lighting are, compared to the Bolshoi’s, positively dull and thus gratingly imperfect matches for Coppélia’s on-stage high jinks and its jolly score. Covent Garden’s nadir arrives in Act 3 where the village celebrations are held – entirely incongruously – at night, with the corps de ballet, costumed in a funereally dull shade of blue, brandishing over-large candles as, under a canopy of twinkly stars, they dance their way onto the stage (pace Gainsborough’s The blue boy or Mr and Mrs Andrews, I’m at one with Sir Joshua Reynolds who considered that blue ought never to be a foreground colour). No, for me the joys of Coppélia’s romantic resolution and Delibes’s joie de vivre score need to be experienced in bright light projected onto a stage full of crisp, exuberant colours and that is what the Bolshoi production delivers in spades.

Secondly this production is also big – another feature that’s particularly appropriate to this ballet with its relatively unsubtle story delineated in bold comic brushstrokes. In spite of its village setting, Coppélia is not a particularly intimate affair. Originally – and, unbelievably, still within living memory at the Paris Opera Ballet – the role of Swanhilda’s boyfriend Frantz (the presentation on this release is inconsistent in spelling the name with or without a “T”) was taken by a female dancer. There was therefore no romantic pas de deux for the leads until modern productions began to introduce one to meet audiences’ expectations. But if Coppélia is a ballet that’s somewhat skimpy on the romance, it more than makes up for that with big foot-stomping numbers like the familiar mazurka and the czardas (the first ever example of that dance deployed in theatre music). Big, bold tunes like those are most convincingly executed by a large corps de ballet and the Bolshoi’s strength in depth – it has more than 200 dancers on the books - allows them to do just that. At the same time, the sheer size of the Moscow stage – amounting to almost 900 sq. meters – offers an opportunity for both the flashy solo virtuosity and the numbers danced en masse that bring the last Act (“the most plotless… in any ballet which tells a story” [Fiske op. cit., p. 29]) to exuberant life.

If the Bolshoi production is entirely commendable – certainly better than any other I know - what of this particular 2018 performance?

Perhaps its most interesting feature is the casting of the two principal roles. Margarita Shrayner was famously plucked from relative obscurity in the ranks of the Moscow company just a few years ago and the role of Swanhilda is one that suits her well. It goes without saying that, as a highly accomplished artist, she possesses the required level of technique - but she supplements that with skilled characterisation. Dancers ought to be able to adapt their own characters to the roles they portray - but not all of them are as convincing as others. Thus, for instance, while her somewhat aristocratic de haut en bas manner suits the Bolshoi’s current grande dame Svetlana Zakharova perfectly when she plays a princess, I suspect that it would make her far less believable as a village girl who’s just spent an hour or two milking the cows or, on a bad day, mucking out the pigs (Bolshoi productions are very fond of exhibiting real animals on the stage but, thankfully, any livestock is kept well away here). Ms Shrayner, on the other hand, appears far more down to earth and to experience no difficulty whatsoever in convincingly portraying a carefree, vivacious, impetuous and, occasionally, petulant village girl. Indeed, this Swanhilda is such an independent spirit that I suspect she wouldn’t be too bothered at all if Frantz had run off with a mechanical doll. Ms Shrayner’s distinctively quick, airy style of dancing is a perfect fit for the role.

As can be seen from the very full career history attached to his Wikipedia entry, Artem Ovcharenko has risen steadily to some prominence in the Bolshoi company in the past decade or so, though he will probably be more familiar to many from his portrayal of Rudolf Nureyev in the 2015 BBC docu-drama Dance to freedom. Judged simply on his size, he makes a good physical match with Ms Shrayner, especially in that interpolated Act 3 Pas de deux. However, while his dancing is never less than good – and often rather more than that – his acting and general stage presence isn’t quite up there with hers. His characterisation is rather bland and even vacant, as he displays a limited range of facial expressions that fail to establish much in the way of Frantz’s character. That’s especially the case in Act 1 – though he redeems himself considerably in Act 2 where he is up there with the other two principals in a skilled demonstration of how to deliver the substantial mime passages to best comic – and at times even slapstick - effect. I suppose it’s a fair point that a boy who falls in love with an automaton can’t be the sharpest tack in the box but, all the same, Frantz really doesn’t need to be as colourless and second-fiddle as this. A very different and, I think, more effective approach to the role is demonstrated in a vintage BBC TV presentation (review) where Donald Britton demonstrates that a more powerfully leonine interpretation can convey a genuine degree of masculine sensuality.

Quite correctly, the disc’s cover gives equal prominence to Coppélia’s third principal character – even though he is not a dancer – Dr Coppélius himself. While he has little more to do in the first and third Acts than wander across the stage from time to time, Alexey Loparevich comes into his own in Act 2 where his comic business is delivered in a genuinely laugh-out-loud manner.

This new and expertly-directed release has, I think, a strong claim to be the current Coppélia of choice, particularly because it is, at least in the Blu-ray presentation that I have been watching, delivered in absolutely pin-sharp picture quality and with impressive sound. The only fly in the ointment is, in fact, the absence of a booklet. That seems a bit of unnecessarily mean penny-pinching and, although it’s easy enough to discover the ballet’s background and story with just a few clicks of the mouse, the omission leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth when you’ve paid full price for the disc.

There is, though, one final point that needs to be mentioned. Ballet fans will probably be aware that a film of the Bolshoi’s Coppélia production already exists on YouTube. Reproduced there in superb technical quality and dating, I believe, from 2011, that performance stars Natalia Osipova and Vyacheslav Lopatin and has never, as far as I know, been made commercially available on disc. Quite frankly, it preserves a very special performance indeed, for the role of Swanhilda could have been written for Ms Osipova (will she, I wonder, be scheduled to perform the role when the Royal Ballet revives its own Coppélia for the coming Christmas season?) Take a look, in particular, at Act 3’s concluding Galop and you will see the leads in some virtuoso dancing of the highest order, especially at 1:36:26 - 1:37:24 (for comparative purposes, the equivalent sequence on the Shrayner/Ovcharenko performance is at 1:32:27 - 1:33:23) and at 1:37:57 - 1:38:11 where Osipova delivers the most daringly fearless high-speed leap into Lopatin’s arms and momentarily brings the house down (the same sequence is at 1:33:56 - 1:34:11 on Shrayner/Ovcharenko, but without, I’m afraid, the thrilling jump). It would, I have to say, be fantastic to have an official Blu-ray/DVD release of Osipova/Lopatin - as, indeed, I’ll point out for the umpteenth time, it would also be good to have one of the past recordings of Osipova partnered by Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote. For now, however, this new and tremendously enjoyable version of Coppélia, with so very many positive things going for it, will do very nicely indeed and is, I imagine, unlikely to be bettered for quite some time.

Rob Maynard

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