Italy Alexei Ratmansky’s Coppélia: Dancers of La Scala Ballet, Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Paul Connelly (conductor). Broadcast (directed by Stefania Grimaldi) from La Scala, Milan, 17.12.2023. (JPr)
Choreography – Alexei Ratmansky
Music – Léo Delibes
Sets and Costumes – Jérôme Kaplan
Lights – Marco Filibeck
Dramaturgy – Guillaume Gallienne
Nicoletta Manni — Swanilda
Timofej Andrijashenko — Franz
Christian Fagetti — Coppélius
Franz’s Friends – Domenico Di Cristo, Federico Fresi, Mattia Semperboni, Saïd Ramos Ponce
Swanilda’s Friends – Gaia Andreanò, Camilla Cerulli, Agnese Di Clemente, Marta Gerani, Giordana Granata, Asia Matteazzi
Allegorical Variations – Linda Giubelli, Navrin Turnbull, Maria Celeste Losa, Rinaldo Venuti
After the virtually non-existent story for The Nutcracker (review here) there is now the equally straightforward Coppélia: during the village festivities for a new church bell, couples will receive a gift of money if they marry. Alexei Ratmansky (currently artist in residence of New York City Ballet) was born in the Ukraine and his reinvigoration of Coppélia is set in Galicia which straddles the border between his home country and Poland. Swanilda is the fiancée of Franz, a handsome young villager, and on the eve of their wedding she has cause to doubt the seriousness of his affections when he is seen flirting with a beautiful girl sitting on the balcony of the eccentric Dr Coppélius’s house. After a bucolic Act I where we even see the legend of the stalk of wheat mimed, the second act has Swanilda and her six playful companions investigate Coppélius’s house and she dresses as the doll and pretends to come to life. This act ends with the complete humiliation of the oddball inventor. Act III basically is just a succession of allegorical dances (which in this version appear to allude to Swanilda and Franz’s future life together) before the wedding celebrations. At the end of the ballet, Coppélius remains something of an outsider who is not placated by money but by having the doll’s dress returned to him.
Coppélia is based on an original E.T.A. Hoffmann story called The Sandman otherwise better known for the Olympia doll act of Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 The Tales of Hoffmann. In the opera another ‘hero’ also becomes obsessed with a realistic-looking figure which a crazy scientist and toymaker has made, and he has the urge to get to know ‘her’ better. In his new Coppélia Ratmansky cranks up the jealousy between Swanilda and the fickle Franz over the doll. He also – as you sometimes see – makes Coppélius rather more sinister in his urge to conjure the ‘life-force’ from Franz (who has passed out through drink) to his creation in the second act.
As performed by La Scala Ballet Coppélia seems the near-perfect antidote to all the sad and tragic news in our current cruel and dispiriting world. Actually, there was plenty of tragedy following the 1870 premiere of this sunniest of works as within a few months its choreographer, Arthur Saint-Léon, was dead, as was the first Coppélius and the first Swanilda, Giuseppina Bazzacchi, died of smallpox on her seventeenth birthday. As if this was not enough, the Franco-Prussian war began and would soon close Paris’s Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra where the ballet was first put on. Nevertheless, Coppélia has endured in a thread unbroken from those first performances to the present day.
This highlights the magnificence and the problem with ballet: it is fantastic – as here – to see such a splendid re-creation of a masterpiece but ‘re-creation’ essentially is all it is. Whilst appreciating what we see, we must also pay homage to those who came before. The original choreographer gave in to the fashion in Western Europe at the time for a woman to appear en travesti as Franz. As time went on this caused a problem as Léo Delibes wrote no music for a formal pas de deux and Franz’s musical themes proved rather lightweight for male dancers down the subsequent years. Modern productions have usually been based on Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti’s 1894 Moscow revival of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and often try to use music which is all-Delibes. La Scala’s new Coppélia has been – so I understand – entirely re-choreographed by Ratmansky whilst honouring what has gone before. As the ballet proceeds with all the fussy little coupés, rond de jambes, changes of direction and much else that seemed familiar in Ratmansky’s steps it looked like a Coppélia Rudolf Nureyev never choreographed (though I did see him dance Franz).
What Ratmansky does is to show Swanilda as a spirited, more modern, independent woman who we first meet at her window watering her plants. She gets incensed when she sees her happy-go-luck, jack-the-lad Franz blowing a kiss at another ‘girl’. (Kudos to Ludovica di Pasquale as Coppélia who Ratmansky gives a more intriguing mime sequence to than we usually see for a mechanical doll). Swanilda becomes so indignant that – although she only too obviously loves him – she refuses to marry Franz later in the first act. Meanwhile we will see how Franz is much more involved (also Nureyev-like) in the ballet and along with Swanilda there is an attempt to integrate both more into the village dances such as the high-stepping mazurka. Sets and costumes are by Jérôme Kaplan and the curtains opened on a typical olde-worlde, sepia coloured, central European village which we will see is full of happy, smiling villagers. The women are in traditional embroidered, pastel-shaded dirndls whilst the men are in leather-looking breeches and several wear hats. Later in Act I they will dance a very lively, hand-clapping csárdás showing the corps de ballet on particularly exuberant form.
Act II takes place in Coppélius’s mad-scientist lair full of odd figures and artefacts. Swanilda’s friends (Gaia Andreanò, Camilla Cerulli, Agnese Di Clemente, Marta Gerani, Giordana Granata and Asia Matteazzi) deserve a mention for their impeccable contributions in Act I but especially now in Coppélius’s workroom they could hardly be bettered in all their naturalistic reactions to some bizarre events such as when some near-naked dolls begin to move jerkily or finding out that Coppélia is also a lifeless doll.
The technically impeccable Nicoletta Manni (her Act III fouettés were near-perfection) was an accomplished actor-dancer capable of conveying the full range of Swanilda’s emotions, whether playfulness, love or jealously. Manni excelled when pretending to be Coppélia and in her Spanish bolero and Scottish gigue. Franz has little to do in the second act, of course, apart from lying mostly comatose on a bed. Elsewhere Timofej Andrijashenko was a very convincing young tearaway, there was brio in every step he did, and the vitality of his dancing turbocharged the virtuosity required in the third act. Andrijashenko was, by turns, courteous, flirtatious, or revealed the twinkling sense of fun the role of Franz demands. He was equally accomplished as a sensitive partner to Manni who was the absolutely ideal, feisty and funny Swanilda. Ratmansky made the chemistry between the two leads so believable that I felt Swanilda and Franz’s bickering transcended the artificiality of ballet. Christian Fagetti was a very modern Coppélius in his black leather coat and workman’s apron, a single-minded, evil genius looking a bit like Edward Scissorhands but without the scissorhands.
Basically, Act III involves a lot of balletic ‘padding’ with those ‘Allegorical Variations’ filling the time before the grand pas de deux. There was the ‘Waltz of the Hours’ and Linda Giubelli in orange with three boys and three girls (who might be hinting at what’s to come for Swanilda and Franz), there was Navrin Turnbull in a blue Greek tunic and Maria Celeste Losa in a golden-brown tutu who danced an animated solo. Finally, a roistering gypsy (Rinaldo Venuti) got the men fighting over their women and the women over their men. With an energetic gallop this Coppélia – like most versions – just fizzles out following Ratmansky’s rather lowkey grand pas de deux as the marriage of Swanilda and Franz is celebrated after she has forgiven him.
The experienced Paul Connelly and the Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, seemed to relish Delibes’s effervescent score and the playing sounded as good as it can for a ballet performance. As heard through loudspeakers there was some excellent playing with several sublime solo contributions.
Featured image: Nicoletta Manni (Swanilda) and Ludovica di Pasquale (Coppélia) © Brescia e Amisano/Teatro alla Scala