RNZ Ballet’s Coppélia – evening of delight and fantasy

The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents:
Léo Delibes’ COPPÉLIA

Cast:  Lucy Green (Swanhilde) / Kohei Iwamoto (Franz)
Sir Jon Trimmer (Dr. Coppélius) / Katherine Grange (Ima)
Joseph  Skelton (Zoltan) / Jarrah McArthur (Coppélia)
Paul Mathews (Limbless)

Royal New Zealand Ballet
Orchestra Wellington

Choreographer: Martin Vedel
Ballet Mistress: Turid Revfeim
Lighting: Jason Morphett
Conductor: Nigel Gaynor

St.James’ Theatre, Wellington

Thursday 17th April, 2014

Even if one didn’t know anything about the origins of the works involved, it’s a simple matter to figure out links between Delibes’ wonderful ballet Coppélia, and another French work for the stage, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman) – each work contains references to mechanical dolls made to masquerade as human beings.

In fact both works drew elements of their scenarios from the same source, which was ETA Hoffmann’s sinister story Der Sandmann, written in 1816, which presented a darker side to a well-known benign character called The Sandman, who traditionally throws sand into the eyes of children to help them go to sleep. Hoffmann’s “Sandmann” is Coppélius, who fashions and conducts experiments with automated figures, which are used by the doctor to cause havoc among lovers and undermine various people’s sense of reality and identity.

Coppélia is a much-simplified version of Hoffmann’s convolutions – a village boy, Franz, becomes enamoured of Coppélia, a girl who sits every day at the upstairs window of a house owned by Dr. Coppélius, an eccentric recluse. Franz is actually engaged to Swanhilde, a village girl, but can’t help his fascination with the beautiful Coppélia, who takes no notice of him or of anybody else, whatever.

During an altercation with several of the young men in the town, Dr, Coppélius unwittingly drops his house-key, which Swanhilde then finds and, with several of her friends, sneaks into his house to find out more about the haughty beauty Coppélia. She’s followed, a few moments later, by Franz, who climbs a ladder put up to Coppélia’s window, anxious for a closer look at the girl who has captured his admiration.

The action proceeds from there in somewhat bizarre fashion, involving the doctor’s sudden return, and Swanhilde’s assuming the identity of Coppélia, who is nothing but an automaton created and assembled by Dr.Coppélius. At one point several of the other mechanical dolls created by Coppélius are activated, allowing Swanhilde in the ensuing confusion to rescue Franz, who had been rendered insensible by drinking too freely the “refreshments” offered by one of the automatons.

At the scene’s conclusion Dr, Coppélius, who had thought Swanhilde’s movements while disguised as the beautiful Coppélia were the triumphant result of his efforts to bring his creation truly to life, is left brokenheartedly clutching his lifeless mannequin as the lovers make their escape amid the chaos and mayhem. The remainder of the action is largely devoted to the wedding of Swanhilde and her – somewhat chastened – Franz.

This latest Royal New Zealand Ballet production presented something of a tale of two worlds, the commonplace, everyday village scenario of the first and third acts contrasted with the phantasmagorical world of the second act, inside the house of Dr.Coppélius. Perhaps the intention was to highlight the impact of that latter, nightmarish sequence of happenings by a conventional, almost low-key approach to the outer acts – pitting the Ordinary against the Fabulous, or some similar kind of idea.

Though effective in that respect, it did have the consequence of underplaying the edge of several of the First- and Third-Act movements and sequences, as if anything full-blooded might “upstage” the impact of that Second Act. A pity, because the music gives several wonderful opportunities for dancers to “take us places” even within the confines of ordinary everyday village life, let alone with any exotic arrivals or disruptive elements that add colour and variation.

One noticed this in places during Act One, such as during the Csardas, with the “friss” or fast section for me failing to truly ignite the smoldering embers promisingly piled up by the gypsy dancers in their opening manoeuvres. The Hungarian/gypsy contingent made a wonderful initiaI impact with striking costumes and strong movements during the music’s sultry “lassu” sections – but even so, I was particularly disappointed that little was made of the music’s numerous szforzandi written by Delibes, which surely cried out for some kind of dynamic physical gesture or response from the stage. And while I’m by no means an expert regarding gypsy-dance, I thought some of the jumps in the music’s concluding sequence seemed too buffoon-like, out of keeping with the haughty and imperious manner of the group’s arrival.

But elsewhere, it was the principals, Swanhilda (danced most winningly by Lucy Green) and Franz (ably characterized by Kohei Iwamoto) who made the most of their solo and interactive opportunities. From Swanhilde’s first entrance one noted the “inner life” of her movements, and the naturalness of her acting, with both physical gestures and with the eyes – both her and Kohei Iwamoto seemed to connect with their movements, gesturing and looks, so that their physical contact had a proper “organic” feel to it, an emotional rightness to their partnership.

Their partner-foils, Ima and Zoltan, danced by Katherine Grange and Joseph Skelton respectively, gave us some beautifully-crafted solos and pas de deux during the Slavonic Variations music. Here, the orchestra-playing, so vigorous and sprightly during the opening Mazurka and Waltz, was more variable, with both beautiful violin and wind solos and the occasional patch of scrawny string-phrasing – but the players quickly made amends with the dynamic Csardas, conductor Nigel Gaynor getting a full-blooded and exciting response from the pit.

However, Act Two, within Coppélius’ house, was another world entirely – compelling and hypnotic in its haunted, dream-like ambience and sense of a kind of “separate reality”. In the midst of the stasis was Paul Mathews’ amazingly-realised “Limbless” a writhing, physically osmotic figure whose convolutions at once repelled and compelled our sympathy for the mute, convulsive creature. The other mannequins all exuded a marvellous dual-aspect of lifeless unease, each one with its particular and distinctive potential for as-yet unactivated macabre mischief.

Central to the unreality was the figure of the doll-like Coppélia, and the half-crazed, half-calculating persona of the doctor. As Coppélia, Jarrah McArthur’s precise, automaton-like movements were expertly done, and a marked contrast to those of Sir Jon Trimmer’s Coppélius, all agitation and part-arthritic-part-obsessive impulse, a figure to be pitied as much as censured. No less remarkable was Lucy Green’s impersonation of Coppélia, completing a stunning tableaux of expressionist-like figures.

I thought that Coppélius’s attempts to draw life from the body of Franz – here tricked into a drunken stupor with the help of an amazing “mine host” automaton – and transfer to the figure of Coppélia, were somewhat diffusely rendered by the “dumb-show” transplanting which the Doctor enacted.  I imagined something more “mad-scientist-like” (using something along the lines of, say, Mesmer’s magnet) could have better-conveyed the disturbing nature, even the horror, of the idea. Still, the activation of all the automatons by Swanhilde and the recovered Franz, leaving the distraught Doctor clutching his lifeless doll-figure, produced a real frisson of anarchic activity, with brilliant and incisive orchestral-playing completing the chaotic picture of despair and release at the Act’s conclusion.

After this, Act Three couldn’t help but be somewhat underwhelming, though necessarily functioning as a kind of unravelling of tensions, such as depicting the marriage of Swanhilde and Franz. As a series of divertissements it was, however, entrancing, with exquisite dancing from the principals, and lovely orchestral detail – beautifully rustic oboe-playing at one point, festively resplendent brass at another, and a gorgeous viola solo at La Paix – though the production didn’t underline the music’s depiction of Strife and Discord with any “darker” choreographic elements – an opportunity for some colour and excitement not taken?

Small dreams of what could-have-been, these, compared with the feeling of gratitude and satisfaction at what the RNZ Ballet, together with the Orchestra Wellington, was able to achieve for us. Sterling work from choreographer Martin Vedel, Ballet Mistress Turid Revfeim, lighting designer Jason Morphett and conductor Nigel Gaynor gave us a delightful and wondrous evening’s entertainment.


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