Published in The Times, Friday February 6 2015
If there are echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in ETA Hoffman’s tale of an inventor who attempts to breathe life into an inanimate doll, the ballet Coppélia, created at the Paris Opera in 1870, is a determinedly light confection, full of youthful high-jinks and comic misunderstandings. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production, first staged in 1995 by Peter Wright and based on the choreography of Petipa and Cecchetti, has a playful, summery energy to match the effervescence of the Delibes’s score. And now and again it manages to find the story’s dramatic heart in amongst all the delicious froth.
The atmosphere of middle European fairy tale is beautifully evoked in Peter Farmer’s set design, which, in the opening town square scene, resembles a faded woodcut illustration, with the soloists made to appear marionette-like against a depthless landscape backdrop. Principals Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley are well matched as the bickering lovers, Swanilda and Franz. He’s a spring-heeled Jack the Lad with a mischievous twinkle in his eye; she’s forever on the front foot, whether pursuing her intended around the square or plunging without thinking into the mysterious house on the corner with the beautiful haughty girl on the terrace. The lively corps dances in this opening scene, meanwhile, move in perfect tandem with the Delibes melodies.
Like the lovers, by the end of Act One, we are desperate to get inside Dr Coppelius’s workshop, and it is in this sequence that Wright’s production comes into its own. While the movement becomes increasingly cartoon-like, with Michael O’Hare’s wonderfully nutty inventor at one point bouncing Franz around the room, repeatedly spanking the naughty youth’s bottom, the moment at which Coppelius realises that he has been duped by Swanilda into believing that his adored doll is alive, is one of piercing sadness.
We return to a string of bouncy divertissements for the final act, but if, dramatically, the ballet is anticlimactic, the strength of the characterisations in this production keeps us onside.
Box office: 0131 529 6000, to Feb 7; touring to Mar 28. brb.org.uk