Much has already been written about the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2014 production of Coppelia and all of it has been universally positive. The production ends its all-too-brief season on Saturday but it was good to see good-sized audiences at the Aotea Centre this week.
The trouble with Coppelia as a ballet is that it’s a bit lightweight – compared to say Swan Lake or Giselle or Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t really have a gutsy story line or stirring music or really soulful characters. Set in a Hungarian village, the main characters are Swanhilda and her boyfriend Franz. Both are mystfied about a strange girl sitting in the window of the house of the slightly sinister Dr. Coppelius. This girl just stays there, unmoving and, for different reasons, both are intrigued to find out more about her. They discover that in fact the Doctor is the creator of life-size automatons and his favourite one is the girl Coppelia who he would love to see come to life. You know how the rest of it goes.
RNZB’s Ballet Master Martin Vedel, has seized on these deficiencies to rework and update the ballet into something quite charming and more tightly character driven. Vedel’s choreography is inspired and inspiring. Movement is not wasted, as in some productions, so the principals and ensemble cast don’t just dance somewhat aimlessly around the stage. The choreography is also truly respectful to the music and it does not forget the comic nature of the ballet. Two of the best examples are in Act 2 where you see the girls peering at Coppelia quizzically as they try to work out what she is and also in the Scottish dance in Act II, when Swanhilda, now dressed up as Coppelia, delivers some well-timed kicks to the nose of Dr. Coppelius.
Because the RNZB rotates its lead dancers, there are actually two sets of principals for this production who appear on alternate nights. Most reviews have not highlighted this which is a bit of a pity as both casts are strong. Having seen both, I think it only fair to give credit where credit is due.
Lucy Green is a complete Swanhilda both in terms of balletic skills but also in terms of her portrayal of character. This Swanhilda is a strong, independent sort of girl, wanting to make sure that Franz really does love her in Act 1 and happy to take the lead from her friends to explore Dr. Coppelius’ house in Act 2. When she ‘transforms’ into Coppelia, her mechanical movements are utterly convincing and a joy to watch. Her Act 3 solos are icing on the cake.
Mayu Tanigaito’s Swanhilda on the other hand has a fantastic exuberance and a wonderful lightness of spirit in her solos in Acts 1 and 3. Her comedic timing is the highlight of her character and this is particularly evident in Act 2. Coppelia is, after all, supposed to be a comic ballet and she makes sure we don’t forget this.
Kohei Iwamoto’s Franz is a good pairing with Green and the two were the alternate principals for the last year’s production of Swan Lake so they know each other well. Iwamoto’s clear and elegant movement give Franz a touch of class and brains that he might not otherwise deserve.
Alexander Idaszak’s Franz reminds us that he is a bit of a lad from time to time, stringing Swahilda along a bit and staying more to the character we come to expect.
Paul Mathews is an outstanding Limbless and steals the show somewhat whenever he moves around the stage in Act 2. You would be convinced that all of his joints move around in 360 degrees. Maclean Hopper has a tough act to follow but is very good, particularly with his interactions with Dr. Coppelius.
I have to admit that I couldn’t tell the difference between Team Czardas (if I can call them that). Abigail Boyle, Clytie Campbell, Hayley Donnison and Bryn Watkins are matched step for step by Madison Geogehgan, Lori Gilchrist, Laura Jones and Kirby Selchow. Both are equally disciplined, elegant and gypsy-like which is exactly what you want to see.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an RNZB production without Sir Jon Trimmer and there is no-one like him for the role of Dr. Coppelius. Loughlan Prior makes the character younger and slightly a little more mad and while his overall charaterisation is fine, a little more grey to the hair and a pince-nez would not have gone amiss.
The sets, borrowed from the Australian Ballet and which remarkably are about twenty-five years old are seemingly timeless, especially those for Dr. Coppelius’ house workshop. The costumes are elegant too and are beautifully weighted, testament to the wonderful work of the late Kristian Fredrickson. The ever-reliable Auckland Philharmonia under RNZB’s Music Director Nigel Gaynor make sure that the music of Leo Delibes’ is as charming and colourful as the dancing on the stage at all times.
In every sense, this is an excellent and memorable production which leaves the audience smiling and happy. Full credit to the RNZB !