Profile of a Great Ballet: Coppélia

Posted by on 03.20.2012

Coppélia first premiered May 25, 1870 at the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra in Paris.  This classic ballet in three acts was originally choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon and set to a score by Léo Delibes.  The plot follows a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann:

The curtain opens on an European town as an old man, Dr. Coppélius hobbles out of his house.  The town is mystified by this elderly citizen, as no one really knows exactly what he does.  A beautiful young woman is sitting on the balcony of his house reading a book.  As he looks up at her with delight, he renters his home.

Our story’s heroine, Swanhilda, now enters.  Dancing around the stage in search of something, we realized that she is young and obviously in love.  She spots the young girl on Dr. Coppélius’ balcony; a girl the townsfolk call Coppélia.  She is said to be the old man’s daughter.  Swanhilda waves to the strange girl, trying to get her attention.  Coppélia does not respond, as she is intent on reading her book.

Swanhilda hides as her fiancé, Franz, enters the stage.  He does not have a care in the world and would not find it odd if every girl in town loved him as much as Swanhilda.  He spots Coppélia, waves to her flirtatiously, and blows her a kiss. Swanhilda suspected Franz had been flirting with Coppélia and now her worst fears were realized.  Coppélia waves back to Franz from the balcony.

Swanhilda returns to the stage and accuses Franz of being unfaithful.  He sees that she is upset and denies that he loves anyone else.  She leaves in a huff as the couple’s friends enter the stage.  After the peasants dance the mazurka, the burgomaster enters the square to inform the group that the village will receive a new bell for the town clock tomorrow and invites everyone to prepare for the ceremonies and celebrations that will ensue.  The peasants are delighted.  The burgomaster goes on to say that he will present dowries to the girls who marry tomorrow.  He asks if Swanhilda and Franz will wed, she says no.  As night falls on the town, the group disbands and heads their separate ways.

Dr. Coppélius emerges from his house and is met by a group of young mean who tease him good-humoredly.  In the scuffle, he drops the key to his house.  He leaves on his errand, disgruntled.  Swanhilda returns to the square with her friends, and happens upon the key.  She announces that she wants to go into him house and confront this Coppélia girl that her fiancé has been flirting with.  Her friends reluctantly follow as the curtains falls on Act I.

Act II opens as Act I began, but the set is now the interior of Dr. Coppélius’ house. The girls enter tiptoeing hand in hand.  They are timidly exploring the space, as Swanhilda spots Coppélia behind a curtain.  Her friends encourage her to say hello.  After no response from Coppélia, Swanhilda discovers that Coppélia does not have a beating heart: she is a life sized doll!  Her friends laugh as she mocks Franz’s flirtation with Coppélia.  They spot three other life size dolls and they wind them up and dance delightedly around them.

The girls are so enchanted by the dolls that they do not hear Dr. Coppélius enter.  He chases them out of the house, as the clever Swanhilda hides behind the curtain where Coppélia resides.  Another intruder enters; Franz has climbed in through the window in search of Coppélia after being rejected by Swanhilda.  Dr. Coppélius is startled and begins to reprimand Franz.  Franz insists that he means no harm; he only wants to see the lovely Coppélia.  The old man tells him that she will arrive home any moment and offers him a drink as he waits.  Coppélius provides him with one drink after another, until he falls asleep at the table.

Coppélius gets out a huge book full of his magical spells, retrieves Coppélia from behind the curtain, and rushes over to Franz’s unconscious body.  He performs incantations that seemingly transfer life from Franz into the porcelain limbs of Coppélia.  To his amazement Coppélia begins to come alive.  Little does he know that Swanhilda is posing as Coppélia by dressing in her costume and performing rigid mechanical movements.  Dr. Coppélius is delighted that his magic has taken affect, only to start to lose control of the doll who is now acting like any young girl.  At the end of the act, Swanhilda is finally able to awaken Franz from his slumber.  Dr. Coppélius now recognizes that he has been fooled; that his beloved doll had been replaced by a real girl.  His disappointment overcomes him.  As Franz apologizes to Swanhilda, they escape the house together.

Act III opens on the festival that the burgomaster promised.  Dr. Coppélius exits his house into the square to demand some compensation for the mess Swanhilda and Franz made of his home.  Swanhilda begins to give him her dowry she had just received, when the burgomaster stops her and gives Coppélius another large bag of coins.  As Coppélius exits back into his home, the festival begins.  The peasant women in the “Waltz of the Hours” imitate a clock, as Dawn, Prayer, and the Spinner perform variations.  The ballet ends as Franz and Swanhilda perform their wedding pas de demux to the delight of the townsfolk.

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Giselle is ballet’s most infamous tragedy, as Coppélia is ballet’s most infamous comedy.  In Giselle ghosts test the love of the hero and heroine, and in Coppélia a beautiful lifeless doll is used as a romantic device to test the lovers’ devotion.  In Giselle Albrect learns a lesson from which he will never recover, Franz in Coppélia learns a lesson to sends him back into the arms of his one true love.

In Looking at the Dance, Edwin Denby wrote of the Ballet Rusee de Monte Carlo’s 1944 performance of Coppélia saying, “When you see their motions and physical proportions beautifully balanced, when you see them harmoniously overcoming impossible difficulties, you have seen a convincing image of what would make two lovers happy in a marriage.”  Denby describes an accurate account of  a passive hero and an aggressive heroine.

In 101 Stories of the Great Ballets, George Balanchine recounts Coppélia with the Russian Imperial Ballet as a member of the company and dancing in the mazurka.  He points out that the czardas and mazurka were first brought into the world of ballet with Coppélia, making divertissements based upon folk dances very popular.  The score by Delibes’ sets up the story line perfectly, providing cues and indications of movement.  Balanchine says, “Delibes is the first great ballet composer; Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are his successors.  Balanchine created his own version of Coppélia on the New York City Ballet in 1974.

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Profiles of Other Great Ballets:

La Sonnambula

John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet

Theme and Variations

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