Ballet companies too often dismiss Coppélia as lightweight, inconsiderable stuff for matinees; ideal for trying out young dancers who may have promise of better things, and really not worth much effort. Not so! Coppélia has serious themes: about the nature of love; about the creation of artificial life; about marriage in a pastoral society; and about the dark arts. They are well stated for those who will look, and with an irresistible charm owed to one of the greatest scores made for ballet.
Coppélia’s failings are not its own, but those of producers, designers, dancers, who will not look with any seriousness at the text, which is sprung from the ballet’s turn-of-the-century-in-St Petersburg recension, and is vastly pretty and hugely difficult to bring off well. Nor will they listen seriously to Delibes’ music (which is even more vastly pretty and difficult), nor understand what a true ballerina can exploit and burnish in its choreography. (A legion of Petersburg divinities, and more recently Danilova, Baronova and Markova, and then Pamela May and Nadia Nerina at Covent Garden – and most recently Marianela Nuñez – showed its dazzling merits.) Here is a bewitching work of art, and cheers for Birmingham Royal Ballet who here brought it to the Coliseum.
The staging is pretty in Peter Farmer’s design, pretty in Peter Wright’s staging, pretty in the interpretations of Nao Sakuma as a beguiling Swanilda and of Chi Cao as her errant and dashing Franz. It is also very pretty in the Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s view of its score under Koen Kessels’ baton.
There were numbed moments when various peasants appeared less than ebullient or bright-footed, but a great joy of the evening was the playing of Michael O’Hare as Coppélius. Busily scuttling over the stage or playing to Swanilda, finding humour everywhere – and pathos and, always, truth – O’Hare illuminates every moment, every dramatic theme, with what seems entire spontaneity. The character is merry, ever resourceful, ever credible, and fired by what I must identify as a grand generosity of spirit. Hurrahs for him and his colleagues, and for this delightful work.