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Swanilda outwits Dr. Coppélius

Teatro alla Scala
12/17/2023 -  & December 20, 29, 31, 2023, January 5, 9, 11, 13, 2024
Alexei Ratmansky (choreography), Léo Delibes (music)
Nicoletta Manni*/Antonella Albano/Alice Mariani/Martina Arduino/Virna Toppi (Swanilda), Timofej Andrijashenko*/Marco Agostino/Claudio Coviello/Nicola Del Freo/Antonino Sutera (Franz), Christian Faggetti (Dr. Coppélius), Domenico di Cristo, Federico Fresi, Mattia Semperboni, Saïd Ramos Ponce (Franz’s friends), Gaia Andreanò, Camilla Cerulli, Agnese di Clemente, Marta Gerani, Giordana Granata, Asia Matteazzi (Swanilda’s friends), Linda Giubelli, Navrin Turnbull, Maria Celeste Losa, Rinaldo Venuti (Allegoric Variations), Corpo di Ballo del Teatro alla Scala, Manuel Legris (director)
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Paul Connelly (conductor)
Jérôme Kaplan (sets & costumes), Marco Filibeck (lighting), Guillaume Gallienne (dramaturgy)

(© Brescia e Amisano)

Delibes’s popular ballet Coppélia opens the ballet season at La Scala. It will be performed nine times with five different casts between December 17 and January 13. For dance aficionados in Milan, it’s a long‑awaited event after Derek Deane’s highly criticized production of the same ballet here in 2009.

Coppélia, despite its continued success since its premiere in 1870, is a historically inauspicious work. Shortly after its premiere in Paris, France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, ending the reign of Napoleon III–who was present at its premiere–and the monarchy in France. Giuseppina Bozzachi, the dancer who inaugurated the role of Swanilda, Coppélia’s leading role, died a few months after the premiere, on her seventeenth birthday. More importantly, it was the swan song of French ballet. Delibes produced one more hit, Sylvia (1876), but the exodus toward Moscow and St. Petersburg had already started. With the support of the Czar, dancers from Italy and France were migrating to Russia where they were offered better pay and conditions. With the likes of Tchaikovsky to compose for ballet, this marked the irreversible preeminence of Russian ballet at the expense of French.

This evening’s performance did not disappoint the throngs at La Scala, which was filled to capacity. The ballet‑going public is different from that of opera, as it appeals to a younger audience, with a higher ratio of women and adolescents.

Jérôme Kaplan’s sets enchanted, as they were true to its setting in Galicia (now roughly between Poland or present‑day Ukraine). The village square looked authentic enough, with a typical Polish church belfry in the background. Likewise, Kaplan’s colourful costumes were appealing and authentic, a welcome change from white tutus.

Alexei Ratmansky, the much sought-after choreographer, concocted a charming traditional vision of the work. Mercifully, we were spared A. I. in lieu of a pretty doll, and the original Galician setting was preserved, so we weren’t transported to Silicon Valley or South Korea.

Nicoletta Manni was a charming Swanilda, an intelligent village girl determined to keep her fiancé, no matter the challenges. Through her energetic movements and intelligent gaze, one could tell this was one alert villager. Timofej Andrijashenko was a charming and naive Franz. He couldn’t tell that the “doll” Coppélia wasn’t a living being, even up close. His second act drunkenness was hilariously convincing.

Christian Faggetti’s Dr. Coppélius was not sinister enough. In the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881), the first act with Olympia is also based on Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (1816). Dr. Coppélius is the equivalent of Spalanzani, Olympia’s “father” rather than Coppélius, evil optician and inventor of the doll’s eyes. In the opera, Spalanzani merely encourages Hoffmann to fall in love with his creation. In the ballet, Dr. Coppélius gives Franz spiked wine, with the intention of using his spells to transfer the young man’s life force into the doll. Faggetti’s Dr. Coppélius was merely eccentric, not menacing or evil. The role is not technically demanding, but one that demands solid acting. Faggetti was amusing when accosted by the village boys in Act I, slimily charming with the naive Franz, and enraptured when his creation seemed to come to life.

Nicoletta Manni, La Scala’s danseuse étoile, was impressive in Act II when she snuck into Dr. Coppélius’s house with her friends to confront her rival, finding instead a collection of automatons. When the inventor returns, she hides in Coppélia’s chamber and dresses as the doll. When she understands Dr. Coppélius’s attempt to steal Franz’s life force, the crafty girl convinces the inventor that the doll had come to life, long enough to snatch the drowsy Franz and abscond. Manni’s impersonation of the doll was remarkable, her staccato movements droll, and her expression rigidly blank, like a doll’s. When she feigned coming to life as a human, Manni returned to her prima ballerina self, dazzling us with Spanish and Scottish dances.

Dramatically, Act III is not exciting, as the dénouement has already happened in Act II, when Swanilda thwarted Dr. Coppélius’s evil plot. It’s basically the celebration of Swanilda and Franz’s wedding. Of note are the ballet’s famous variations allégoriques, brilliantly performed by the corps de ballet. The most captivating part of the ballet was Act III’s Grand pas de deux, magnificently interpreted by Manni and Andrijashenko, who showed grace, elegance and brilliant technique. It’s to be noted that this rapturous duet wasn’t in the original score, as Franz was performed en travesty by the Paris Opera’s principal dancer Eugénie Fiocre (1845‑1908).

This new production of Coppélia is a triumph and a crowd pleaser, as confirmed by their long applause and loud cheers. The beautiful sets, the mixing of folkloric dances with classical ballet, the elegant choreography and, most of all, the brilliant dancing of the two lead soloists, was a winning combination. This is a promising season opener that will doubtless welcome other quality productions in the coming months.

Ossama el Naggar



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