United Kingdom Léo Delibes, Coppélia: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Paul Murphy (Conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 24.2.2015 (GR).
Swanilda: Momoko Hirata
Franz : César Morales
Dr Coppélius: Michael O’Hare
After its inclusion in the Birmingham Royal Ballet Summer programmes of 2011 and 2013, another appearance of Coppélia in 2015, makes it one of BRB’s most performed ballets – and deservedly so! In addition to its seemingly biennial outings, the ‘Magic Scene’ was included in the company’s showcase Evening of Music and Dance at their home town’s Symphony Hall this January. This was an engaging preview for the full treatment on Feb 24th 2015. Once again it was a delight to both eye and ear, unwinding to the ‘easy listening’ music of Léo Delibes and gorging on the spectacles that occupied the stage of the Birmingham Hippodrome. The well-established Peter Wright production that has dignified many stages and enthralled umpteen audiences since it first appeared in 1995, does not suffer from over-exposure, like so many other theatrical chestnuts. Much of its longevous qualities must go of course to such institutional pillars of ballet choreography as Frenchman Marius Petipa for his version in 1884 and Italian Enrico Cecchetti’s revision ten years later. 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. The narrative for Coppélia is extremely simple and a synopsis is hardly necessary, particularly when the facial expressions and overt miming of all three principals spell it out. Assistance also came from the lighting of Peter Teigen: in Act II his proficiency allowed the every detail and action to be fully visible whilst still giving the impression of it being a night setting. The costumes of Peter Farmer for the locals of Eastern Europe, the gypsies and the glamorous gowns for the gardens of the Duke’s mansion were all apposite and practical for dance as required. Also, the ceremonial bell, his prop for Act III, was worthy of its adoration by the villagers.
Many BRB dancers have excelled as Swanilda in Birmingham: in recent years Elisha Willis (2011) and Nao Sakuma (2013). For that January advert, it was Momoko Hirata who mesmerised the audience. I was therefore delighted to see that on this occasion it was she who had been chosen for the lead role on Birmingham’s first night of this short run. Returning to Birmingham from Barcelona as their newest female Principal, Hirata dominated the stage whenever she was on it – so light on her feet, floating through the three acts with sound technical application and charming facial and bodily nuances. When required César Morales gave her some first-rate support, although his handsome Franz was a boy-friend who paraded a roving eye. The third main character was filled by Michael O’Hare, reprising the zany Dr Coppélius, the inventor whose creations rarely come up to expectation; his grin was as wizened as ever, running around with a mixture of hyperactive frenzy and loveable eccentricity.
The actions of Hirata and Morales to the sight of Coppélia displayed upon the Doctor’s balcony in Act I set the mood of the whole ballet – enchantment, with a guaranteed happy-ever-after ending. Wanting the inanimate life-size doll to be her friend, Swanilda graphically made several ‘Here am I’ body statements and was patently disappointed at the lack of response. Her ‘Fiddlesticks to you’ reaction was reinforced by the Sinfonia strings led by Robert Gibbs. When the dashing Franz appeared he made a play for Coppélia, her creator winding 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 from a passionate BRB corps de ballet was headed by 2014 newcomer Daria Stanciulescu as the lead gypsy, employing her Romanian roots to full advantage in order to persuade Morales that they should get it together. The course of true love never did run smooth! And when the rattle, meant to confirm fiancé Franz’s love for Swanilda in the charming ‘ear-of-corn’ scene, failed to sound, Hirata’s fears grew. Supported by Samara Downs, Yvette Knight, Yasuo Atsuji and Tom Rogers, Stanciulescu had a second try at enticing Morales in the exhilarating Czárdás; the pacey Sinfonia sounds together with the stamping of heels and clapping of hands generated a genuine Hungarian flavour. Wanting to get to the bottom of the Coppélia intrigue, Swanilda bravely spearheaded her chain of six chums (the delightfully coordinated Ruth Brill, Reina Fuchigami, Jade Heusen, Maureya Lebowitz, Delia Matthews and Yijung Zhang) into Dr Coppélius’ house; the timorous Zhang, the last one to pass through his front door genuflected – smiles all round.
Swanilda and her friends also stole the beginning of Act II too as the gallant crew emerged into the Doctor’s doll-making workshop, Zhang again the last of the seven having to be dragged in, hand covering her eyes. I loved the way the motley collection of dolls were pressed into action – mechanically moving to the clockwork music of Delibes and responding to the motif the composer had given to their inventor. After Swanilda is discovered by the Doctor, she assumes the role of Coppélia (luckily they had the same costumes); Coppélius thought that at last he had got himself ‘a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll’. Hirata’s jerky actions, precisely timed to the music and O’Hare’s hocus-pocus recipes from his ‘big book’ made it a magical scene and well received by the Hippodrome audience. Hirata’s rotational movement 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 as Coppélius’ realises his foolishness, the lovers escape.
Act III was devoted to the celebrations of the Festival of the Bell, the bell being a gift for the village church. A series of various divertissements took place in true ballet form: a Dance of the Hours from the BRB artists with Rory Mackay as an implacable Father Time; a bright Dawn from Angela Paul; a reverential Prayer with Jenna Roberts; a sweeping sickle-dance to represent Work. The Betrothal by Arancha Baselga and Jonathan Caguioa was admirable, their foot-stamping in perfect unison, while a Call to Arms led by the versatile Mathias Dingman illustrated the strength of the male BRB troupe (see photo). All enjoyable fayre! For Peace, Hirata and Morales, having put any differences they may have had well behind them, made their declaration of love for all their friends to see: a superb pas de deux that led to 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 in the Act I Valse. Other highlights included the opening bars of the Act I Prelude with impressive horn playing from Andrew Littlemore, Neil Mitchell, Chris Pointon and Philip Walker; a striking salvo from the percussion and brass that began the Mazurka; the atmospheric playing from Sandra Skipper on piccolo in the Musique des automates; and the sonorous solo violin of Gibbs to cement the love of Swanilda and Franz in the Act III pas de deux.
Coppélia continues at the Hippodrome until Feb 28th before moving on to Salford (4th-7th Mar) and Plymouth (28th–28th Mar).