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Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Coppélia, ballet suite (1870)
Libretto by Charles Nuitter
Marianela Núñez – Swanilda; Vadim Muntagirov – Franz; Gary Avis – Dr Coppelius 
Producer & Choreography - Ninette de Valois after Lev Ivanov & Enrico Cecchetti
Music director - Barry Wordsworth
Scenic and costume design - Osbert Lancaster
Lighting - John B Read
Staging - Christopher Carr
Director for television performances - Ross MacGibbon
Royal Opera House Orchestra and Ballet
rec. 29 November & 10 December 2019, Royal Opera House, London
OPUS ARTE OA1316D DVD [105 mins]

The benchmark production for this ballet for many is the televised Bolshoi production of 2017 (review), despite it having originated in France. This Royal Opera House production, like the Bolshoi one, follows the classical libretto in three Acts. There is an excellent Opéra National production which condenses the ballet into two Acts and misses out the wedding festivities which take place in Act III. The most memorable highlights of this ballet are the two Act I dances, the Mazurka and Czardas, and the Act II Music of the Automatons and Coppélia’s Valse, all of which are danced to perfection in this London production.

The warm audience applause on their entrances anticipates the dancing excellence of the principals, Swanilda and Franz. Marianela Núñez’s Swanilda is a delight. The wide-eyed appeal of her character provides a good balance between energetic impishness and curiosity. Núñez has been dancing principal roles for seventeen years since the age of 20 with her debut in native Buenos Aires. Lightness of footwork and delicacy of movement are delightful and endearing. Appearing as Franz, the energetic Russian Vadim Muntagirov must have felt at home here, for he would have known the classical Moscow production; he won a scholarship at the Prix de Lausanne and, though not speaking much English, chose to train at the Royal Ballet School, Covent Garden in London, where he has been a Lead Principal since 2012.

Christopher Carr’s staging has been carefully formulated so that the choreography works well, linking seamlessly with the musical cues. The part of Dr Coppélius offers the scope for depth of character and here he is given none of the sinister overtones of Hoffman’s original book. A less severe Coppélius was provided in Delibes’ first libretto by Nuitter to fit the passion conveyed by the score. Here, producer, Ninette de Valois, has chosen to portray the part of Coppélius as an eccentric. This has allowed Gary Amis in the role to provide good humour in the Workshop scene (Act II). After briefly showing annoyance towards Franz for entering his house, Coppélius welcomes him in for a drink rather than scold him. This contrasts with the Bolshoi version where an angry Coppelius forces Franz to drink the drugged wine. Osbert Lancaster carries on the theme of eccentricity with his quirky scenic design.

Osbert Lancaster’s scenery and costume designs of 1954 are still fashionable today and I am pleased to see that Covent Garden continues to use them. The dresses and uniforms stand out with contrasting patterns of detail to make a stunning stage picture. His quirky Act I set doubles for Act III, yet has his hallmark of using different sky backcloths for each Act. Bolshoi’s Act III is played in full daylight, whereas the Covent Garden version uses a night setting to generate a different mood, a device Lancaster later uses in his setting for The Sorcerer (1970).

The Act II workroom, with dolls’ heads on a shelf and animated animals hanging in the rafters, is nicely lit to give eerie, shadowy charm and keep the setting atmospheric. It opens with a re-run of the stage action of the conclusion of Act 1, where we saw the village girls, followed by the Doctor, entering the house and Franz climbing a stepladder before the curtain falls. This is in contrast to the more sensible Paris version where the village girls enter the house and the Doctor walks off as the curtain falls. Swanilda imitates the Coppélia automaton with clever robotic moves which are clumsily comic. Despite following the traditional form of presentation for the ballet, the mimes in this Act are clearer than I remember from earlier productions, and thereby allow everyone to understand the story better.

Wordsworth’s music is well-paced and he doesn’t interrupt the flow with the unexpected rallentandos I have heard elsewhere. His dynamics are good yet not over-exaggerated. Delibes’ music always speaks for itself with its cheery motifs and lush harmony. The acoustics of the Opera House are ideal and the soundtrack is nicely balanced. One surprise is seeing the word ‘Overture’ used at the start of each Act. Surely we should be referring to ‘Prelude’ and ‘Entr’actes’ in ballet. Wordsworth’s version lasts five minutes longer than the Bolshoi performance I notice, but nowhere do any numbers flag.

One effect which makes better sense in this production than others is in keeping the dolls under dust cloths when the village girls enter so they don’t distract and frighten them. Bringing Coppélia to life requires good comic animation, during which Dr Coppélius is the brunt of some well-timed jokes. For the dolls, apart from Coppélia, to wear white facemasks seems pointless and detracts from this otherwise engaging scene.

The recording is excellent, with good framing and ideal cutting. Despite some good camerawork, it is disappointing to find wide-angled shots regularly cutting off the feet of the dancers when they come downstage, since the result gives imperfect composition. On wide shots, there’s a tendency for white levels to be burnt out (clipped). This may not be the case in the Blu-ray DVD version, however. Some DVDs of Coppélia are short and end the story at the end of Act II (found in the Paris version). It is true that Act III includes only a betrothal and a series of dances for the wedding festivities, but these often provide an opportunity to show off excellent dancing routines and to hear more of Delibes’ nice melodies. I prefer the Royal Opera House’s choreography of Act III to that of the Bolshoi, who treat each dance as a separate item instead of being part of a choreographed flow.

The DVD offers excellent Stereo and Surround Sound options and a short (14m) featurette. The featurette covers a conversation between Merle Park, veteran Darcey Bussell and Marianela Núñez discussing the character of Coppélia. The video is encoded for all regions and the 16pp booklet is provided in English.

Raymond J Walker

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