Intimate and enchanting Coppélia opens Birmingham Royal Ballet’s summer season

Delibes,Coppélia: Dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 14 6.2011. (GR)

Principal Dancers:
Swanilda – Elisha Willis
Franz – Matthew Lawrence
Dr Coppélius – David Morse

If you like the Nutcracker, you’ll love Coppélia. This June 14th opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2011 Summer Season was an enchanting experience. What a pleasure it was to relax to the ‘easy listening’ music of Léo Delibes and take in the delights that graced the stage of the Birmingham Hippodrome. This was I suspect a far cry from the forthcoming extravaganza of the Gubbay production of Romeo & Juliet at the O2 Arena. This Coppélia offered an intimacy of performance that in my view ballet demands. BRB staged an established Peter Wright production, one that has previously dignified many stages and delighted umpteen audiences since it first appeared in 1995. Indeed some of the credit for the choreography is still given to such institutional pillars of ballet as Frenchman Marius Petipa and Italian Enrico Cecchetti. In the programme Gerald Dowler traced the production thread even further back – to its 1870 premier. Long may Coppélia remain a bastion of the repertoire.

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories have inspired many works for the stage. His Der Sandmann has not only given us Coppélia but also Act I of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, as well as several lesser-known opera compositions. Not that the narrative forms a major part of this ballet. In reality a synopsis was barely necessary – the facial expressions and overt miming of all three principals filled in all the blanks. Assistance in this area also came from the lighting of Peter Teigen: in Act II his proficiency allowed the dancers to be fully visible whilst still giving the impression of a night setting. The costumes of Peter Farmer for both the Eastern European community and the gypsies were appropriate and practical. I thought his ceremonial bell for Act III worthy of celebration by the locals. However I thought his sets for Act I did not give the spaciousness required of a village square. When Jonathan Payn as Burgomaster and his subjects joined Swanilda and her friends, their movement did seem a tad crowded. Act II by contrast seemed to have all the space the dancing required.

Is there a character role in ballet that David Morse has not vividly filled? On this occasion of course he was Dr Coppélius, the zany inventor whose creations rarely came up to expectations. He came with a stoop reminiscent of Olivier and Richard III, a shuffling gait that warranted a Zimmer frame and a wizened grin when showing off Coppélia, his favourite doll. In contrast Australian Elisha Willis as Swanilda was youthful in every respect. But it was not only her charisma and dancing technique that shone. To say that her characterisation of this spirited little madam was as good as that of Morse is praise indeed. Her demeanour during the ‘ear of corn’ scene (looking for the rattle that will confirm fiancé Franz’s love for her) ranging from dread to glee was charming. When Franz showed an interest in Coppélia the indignation of Willis was expressively conveyed by her folded arms and determined chin, gaining the attention of her man with some high kicks. Formidable stamina too, we knew this was her show! Matthew Lawrence, another product of the Australian Ballet School was Franz, continuing to build his reputation at BRB; he was the perfect foil in the pas de deux with Willis. His solo efforts were likewise spectacular, crossing the Hippodrome stage in prodigious leaps and performing multiple entrechats.

Pick of the supporting roles was Gaylene Cummerfield as the lead gypsy in the Czárdás. With Jamie Bond, Joseph Caley, Céline Gibbons and Angela Paul, they stamped their heels to generate a genuine Hungarian flavour. The honour of the title role fell to Laura-Jane Gibson, who came to life with just about the right amount of jerks. Paul’s solo in Act III was a graphic representation of Dawn. First Artist Mathias Dingman was a distinguished lead in the rousing Call to Arms, backed by a troupe of males in excellent synchronisation.

There were several amusing moments too. For example as Swanilda bravely leads her chain of six mates into Dr Coppélius’ house in order to investigate the mystery of Coppélia at the close of Act I, the timorous last one to pass through the door genuflected. And when the gallant seven emerged into the workshop at the beginning of Act II, the final entrant had to be dragged in, hand over her eyes.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under their Music Director Koen Kessels contributed greatly to the evening’s enjoyment. There was some inspired ensemble playing from the strings led by Robert Gibbs, notably in the Act I Valse. The opening salvo from the percussion and brass section that began the Mazurka was striking. I picked out some atmospheric playing from Lynn Peters on flute and Sandra Skipper on piccolo in the Musique des automates. The sonorous cello of James Potter in Peace as Swanilda and Franz danced the pas de deux that sealed their love was also memorable.

The double bill of Allegri diversi and Carmina burana makes up the second half of BRB’s Summer Season on 22nd to 25th June inclusive.

Geoff Read