BRB Magic and the Original ‘Living Doll’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Léo Delibes, Coppélia: Dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Paul Murphy (conductor). Birmingham Hippodrome, 4.6.2013. (GR)

Principal Dancers:
Swanilda: Nao Sakuma
Franz: Chi Cao
Dr Coppélius: Michael O’Hare

Choreography and Production: Peter Wright
Lighting: Peter Teigen
Design: Peter Farmer

Two years ago almost to the day, I raved about Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Coppélia. That same production returned for the opening night of their 2013 Summer Season. Once again it was a pleasure to relax to the ‘easy listening’ music of Léo Delibes and wallow in the delights that graced the stage of the Birmingham Hippodrome. BRB also offered an intimacy of performance that in my view this ballet demands. The established Peter Wright production that has dignified many stages and delighted umpteen audiences since it first appeared in 1995 does not suffer from over-exposure like so many other revivals. Much of its longevity qualities must go of course to such institutional pillars of ballet choreography as Frenchman Marius Petipa and Italian Enrico Cecchetti. Long may Coppélia remain a bastion of the BRB 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 parts 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 the ceremonial bell, his prop for Act III, worthy of adoration by the locals.

If there were few changes to the presentation, the principal dancers from my 2011 review had all changed: Elisha Willis continues to delight Birmingham audiences (such as her Cinderella last November, but in this Coppélia run she only takes the leading role on the Saturday evening); Matthew Lawrence has returned to Australia; David Morse has retired. But there is no cause for alarm; BRB’s strength in depth was there for all to see. It is hard to believe that Nao Sakuma has been with the company since 1995 and as Swanilda she showed no sign of wilting. She brought together a formidable combination of classical technique and expressive nuance. With her oft-time regular partner Chi Cao they brought the Orient to the Eastern European setting with charm and panache. The contrast between Morse and Michael O’Hare as Dr Coppélius, the zany inventor whose creations rarely come up to expectation, was noticeable but equally effective: both had a wizened grin when showing off his favourite doll creation Coppélia, but Morse came with a stoop and a shuffling gait, while O’Hare communicated a mixture of hyperactive frenzy and likeable eccentricity.

The reactions of Sakuma and Cao to the sight of Coppélia displayed upon the Doctor’s balcony in Act I was particularly enchanting. Wanting the inanimate to be her friend, Swanilda graphically made several ‘Here am I’ body statements and disappointed at the lack of response was backed by the strings in her ‘Fiddlesticks to you’ reaction. When Franz (who although betrothed to Swanilda is ever on the lookout for a pretty girl) showed an interest, Coppélius wound up her mechanism to keep him interested; watching across the stage from her own balcony Swanilda was not amused. Her feelings were further miffed during the subsequent Mazurka, a dazzling and energetic ensemble by a tempestuous BRB corps de ballet with Victoria Marr persuading Franz that he should be her partner. The course of true love never did run smooth; when the rattle, meant to confirm fiancé Cao’s love for her in the ‘ear-of-corn’ scene, failed to sound, Sakuma’s fears grew. Supported by Céline Gibbons, Angela Paul, Mathias Dingman and Steven Monteith in the Czárdás, Marr as the lead gypsy had a second try at enticing Cao; the pacey Sinfonia music, the stamping of heels and hand coordination generated a genuine Hungarian flavour. Wanting to get to the bottom of the Coppélia intrigue, Swanilda bravely leads her chain of six chums (the delightfully coordinated Arancha Baselga, Samara Downs, Maurreya Lebowitz, Laura-Jane Gibson, Callie Roberts and Yijung Zhang) into Dr Coppélius’ house; the timorous last one to pass through his front door genuflected – a lovely close to the first act.

Swanilda and her friends also stole the beginning of Act II as the gallant crew emerged into the Doctor’s doll-making workshop, the last of the seven having to be dragged in, hand over her eyes. I loved the way the motley collection of dolls were pressed into action – creations animated by the clockwork music of Delibes, responding to the motif the composer had given to their creator. Left alone with the Doctor, Swanilda had no option but play the doll’s role (luckily they had the same costumes). Sakuma’s mechanical actions, her timing to the music and O’Hare’s hocus-pocus recipe’s from his ‘big book’ was faultless. Her rotational attitudes when invited to regard her mirror image showed exceptional balance. Franz who had earlier entered the workshop by a window only to be drugged eventually comes round and Coppélius’ realises his foolishness – the lovers escaped.

Act III is devoted to the celebrations of the Festival of the Bell, a gift for the village church; Rory Mackay was unrecognisable in his guise of Father Time. A series of various divertissements took place in true ballet form: a Dance of the Hours from the BRB artists; Dawn from Angela Paul; Prayer with Jenna Roberts (see photo); a sickle-dance to represent Work; Betrothal by Arancha Baselga and Jonathan Caguioa; a Call to Arms led by Mathias Dingman. All enjoyable fayre! Sakuma and Cao showed that their love was for keeps with their contribution of Peace before a rousing conclusion.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Paul Murphy contributed greatly to the evening’s enjoyment. There was some inspired ensemble playing from the strings led by Richard Friedman, notably in the Act I Valse. Other highlights included: the opening bars of the Act I Prelude, the horns of Neil Mitchell, Chris Pointon, Philip Walker and A N Other, sounding Wagnerian; the striking salvo from the percussion and brass that began the Mazurka; the atmospheric playing from Lynn Peters on flute and Sandra Skipper on piccolo in the Musique des automates; the sonorous cello of James Potter to cement the love of Swanilda and Franz in the Act III pas de deux.

Geoff Read