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With Mime, Melody, and Movement a Story Book Comes to Life

New York
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
01/07/2009 -  and 9, 10, 11, 13*, 16 January 2009
Léo Delibes: Coppélia
The New York City Ballet: Megan Fairchild (Swanilda/Coppélia), Joaquin De Luz (Frantz), Robert LaFosse (Dr. Coppélius), Sam Greenberg (Astrologer Automaton), Chase Finlay (Juggler Automaton), Matthew Renko (Acrobat Automaton), Anthony Huxley (Chinaman Automaton), Teresa Reichlen (Dawn), Dena Abergel (Prayer), Faye Arthur (Spinner)
George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova after Marius Petipa (Choreographer), Children of the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet Orchestra, Maurice Kaplow (Conductor)
Rouben Ter-Arutunian (Scenery and Costumes), Karinska (Dawn, Prayer, Spinner, and Children’s Costumes), Ronald Bates (Original Lighting), Mark Stanley (Lighting)

M. Fairchild & R. LaFosse (© Paul Kolnik)

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Swanilda who loved a young man called Frantz. Alas, Frantz was intrigued by another. He fancied Coppélia – a lovely young creature who sat all day, every day, reading the same book on the balcony of the house of her father, Dr. Coppélius. The old fellow seemed mysterious and more than a little diabolical. And he had secrets. He locked his door when he went to the local inn for his nightly drink. One evening, Swanilda, who found his key in the street, stole into the house, along with her friends, to get a good look at her rival. They found a collection of Dr. Coppélius’s life-size dolls. To their astonishment, they realized that Coppélia was just another doll. Meanwhile, Frantz, the faithless boyfriend, climbed into Dr. Coppélius’s window to visit the object of his desire, not knowing she was really just an object.

When Dr. Coppélius returned home from the inn to find his house filled with intruders, he was enraged. Swanilda’s friends ran away. She hid in a cupboard that happened to contain her inanimate rival, Coppélia, not knowing there was anyone else about, Dr. Coppélius decided to drug Frantz and steal his soul so he could give life to Coppélia. Meanwhile, the clever Swanilda had changed places with Coppélia. She danced with mechanical movements, befitting a wind-up doll. And then she pretended that Coppélius’ spell had worked as she was gradually transformed into a real girl. When Coppélius realized he had been tricked, he was devastated. And when Frantz realized he had fallen in love with a mere doll, he was embarrassed and resolved to be faithful to his Swanilda. They were betrothed and destined to live happily ever after.

Delibes’ Coppélia has been an audience favorite for almost one hundred and forty years. And why ever not? It is a gentle comedy with an enchanting melodically rich score, lovable characters, life-size dancing wind-up dolls, and a clever young heroine who outsmarts an old magician and wins back the boy she loves.

The original production premiered in Paris in May 1870. Léo Delibes, then only thirty-four, composed the delectable score. Arthur Saint-Léon and Charles Nuitter wrote the book, which was based on a short story, Der Sandmann, by E. T. A Hoffmann. Saint-Léon was also the choreographer. None of the original dances survive. What has survived is a version staged by Maurius Petipa in Saint Petersburg in 1884, and revised by Ivanov and Cecchetti in 1894.

George Balanchine had seen the early Russian performances when he was a young man. In 1974, he and his colleague, Alexandra Danilova (who had been considered the definitive Swanilda of her time), restaged Coppélia for the New York City Ballet with an all new third act by Balanchine and a second act reconstructed from what Lincoln Kirstein has called Danilova’s “almost photographic memory” of the Russian productions. This version of Coppélia is the only one with authentic national dances -- truly marvelous ensembles with stunningly beautiful costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian.

Delibes entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of twelve, where he studied with Adolphe Adam, composer of many stage works including the ballet Giselle. The younger man wrote operettas and became a chorus master at the Paris Opera. His opera, Lakmé, is most famous for its bell song. Delibes’ ballets were much admired by Tchaikovsky. His score for Coppélia is filled with enchanting lyricism and inventive and highly atmospheric orchestration, particularly in the second act, where the music conveys the magic and the fun and the otherworldly quality of Dr. Coppélius’ workshop.

The music of Coppélia embodies the drama, the gestures, and the movements of the ballet, allowing the story to be told without words. Delibes created characters painted in broad musical strokes. Swanilda is young and determined, feeling tenderness for Frantz but also jealousy at his infatuation with Coppélia. Frantz is a naïve young man, torn between his feelings for Swanilda and Coppélia. Dr. Coppélius is a lonely old man, who loves his creation, Coppélia, like a daughter, and seeks to bring her to life. His magical machinations are comic but also reminiscent of the dangerous work of Dr. Frankenstein, who also sought to make an inanimate object live and, tragically, succeeded. The menace of the original Hoffmann story has been removed and we can laugh at Coppélius, albeit with more than a touch of sympathy. There is particular poignancy at the end of act two when Coppélius discovers that, despite his magical spells, Frantz has retained his soul and his beloved Coppélia is still only a doll.

The dancers were excellent, particularly the delightful Megan Fairchild as Swanilda. She is a marvelous dancer. Her toe work in the first act was especially fine as she danced with grace and assurance. She is also an excellent actress and mime. In the second act, she was Coppélia, the doll, dancing with jerky movements and impeccable comic timing. And then in act three, she was transformed into the elegant creature of the brilliant pas de deux – a woman on the brink of marriage.

Joaquin De Luz as Frantz conveyed the callowness of youth through his gestures and talent for mime. His jumps were assured and controlled and he proved an accomplished partner in act three. Robert LaFosse’s Coppélius was well characterized and alternatively comic, poignant and a bit macabre.

The dancing in act three, a Balanchine creation, was wonderful. I particularly admired The Four Jesterettes and War and Discord, who were costumed like Wagner’s Valkyries. The lovely child dancers were the clear favorite of the audience.

The New York City Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Maurice Kaplow, gave full expression to Delibes’ wonderful melodies and the nuances of color and texture of his orchestration.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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