The Boston Opera House boasts cavernous ceilings adorned with gold filigree and chandeliers, which naturally calls for performances of virtuosity. With the opening of its production “Coppélia” last Thursday in its home theater, Boston Ballet exhibited not only virtuosity, but also an artistic flair that brought a 140-year-old ballet to life in a world very different from its 1870 premiere.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s book “Der Sandmann,” the classical ballet “Coppélia” was first choreographed by Arthur St. Léon to the music of Léo Delibes. It is one of the greatest comic classical ballets in history, telling the whimsical tale of the easily fooled Frantz, his love Swanilda, and their encounters with old Dr. Coppélius, the town toy-maker and magician. Though Frantz originally pesters Dr. Coppélius, he is lured by the beauty of the scheming toy-maker’s life-sized doll Coppélia and bewitched with magic sleeping potion. All the while, clever Swanilda fools both the toy-maker and Frantz—her husband-to-be—in a wildly entertaining tale of ironic mishaps.
Though retaining traditional elements, Boston Ballet’s production follows George Balanchine’s neoclassical choreography of “Coppélia.” The ballet was originally cast in 1974 for Patricia McBride (Swanilda) and Helgi Tomasson (Frantz), two of Balanchine’s greatest stars in the New York City Ballet. This spring, Judith Fugate staged “Coppélia” for two of Boston’s own stars: Misa Kuranaga and Nelson Madrigal.
Kuranaga’s performance as the charming Swanilda evokes McBride’s distinctive articulation and finesse. As the curtains opened on the set of a quaint Austro-Hungarian village, Kuranaga took to the stage with flawless technique, embodying the spirit of the young, vivacious Swanilda with spunk. Madrigal portrayed a naïve and good-natured Frantz, complementing Kuranaga both in character and skill. The first act was light and playful—the dancers of the corps de ballet (the chorus of the Boston Ballet company) swished their period costumes in Balanchine’s authentic character dances. Character dances are stylized portrayals of folk or national dances.
The most amusing act of “Coppélia” was the second, as both Swanilda and Frantz delved into mischief. Swanilda and her friends crept through the dark scenery of Dr. Coppélius’s home, winding up his elaborate mechanical dolls to dance around the workshop. Kuranaga revealed her girlish good when she disguised herself as Dr. Coppélius’s beloved doll, fooling the old toy-maker into thinking his masterwork had come to life. Dr. Coppélius, played by the comical Boyko Dossev, hobbled around the stage in delight as Kuranaga danced a Scottish reel and a Spanish fandango. His delight turned to dismay when she revealed her trick and ran from the workshop hand-in-hand with Frantz. It is in this second act that Léo Delibes is truly distinguished as a dancer’s composer. His symphonic score faithfully highlights the ballet’s plotline while drawing upon national themes and adding whimsical sound effects to hold the attention of the audience. Though conducting for ballet is notoriously difficult, Maestro Jonathon McPhee skillfully led the Boston Ballet Orchestra while paying close attention to the dancers on the stage.
The third act of “Coppélia” is entirely Balanchine’s own work, as the focus shifts from the storyline to the dancing itself. In the Festival of the Bells, the townspeople celebrated their new village bell tower in front of a breathtaking set; the wings were adorned with bouquets while garlands and bells hung from above. In a series of dances to commemorate moments when the town bells would be rung—dawn, prayer, work, war, and peace—Boston Ballet’s principals and soloists performed with grace. Soloist Rie Ichikawa (as Dawn) and Whitney Jensen (as Spinner), one of the corps de ballet, gave particularly technically sound performances. They were accompanied by more than 30 young students of the Boston Ballet School, who were endearing in their meticulous symmetric formations and tiny pink tutus.
The Festival of the Bells also welcomed the newly wedded Swanilda and Frantz in their closing pas de deux, a duet for a man and a woman. Kuranaga again demonstrated her versatility as an artist: the elegance and poise of a new bride took the place of the mischievous spirit she exuded in Dr. Coppélius’s workshop. Madrigal distinguished himself as a skilled partner, presenting Kuranaga with ease.
With the swell of the orchestra, all of the dancers in the Festival of the Bells returned behind the married couple in the finale, dancing together toward the ballet’s jubilant conclusion. “Coppélia” is a testament to the high caliber of Kuranaga, Madrigal, and the rest of Boston Ballet’s technical and artistic skill.