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American Ballet Theatre

'Coppelia'

by Jerry Hochman

June 17, 2011 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

A year ago, after reviewing Natalia Osipova’s debut as Juliet with American Ballet Theatre, I warned that if she returned this year, readers should purchase tickets as soon as casting was announced, or be prepared to hang from the chandeliers. No one was hanging from the chandeliers at last night’s performance of “Coppelia,” Ms. Osipova’s initial performance in that role with ABT, but every seat appeared to have been filled – and the Met found seats to sell (and desperate viewers to purchase them) that I never knew existed – boxes with views of the stage roughly equivalent to a view from the top of the Empire State Building to the street directly below. A performance by Ms. Osipova is an Event.

At this point, Ms. Osipova’s name could sell tickets to a performance of grass growing in Central Park. Is she worth the acclaim? Of course. This guest artist from the Bolshoi can do things that no other ballerina does: with her faster-than-a-speeding-bullet pique turns, her helium-filled, soaring, jet-propelled jetes, and her ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, she’s super-ballerina. [Maybe those seats hovering over the stage at the top of the house weren’t so bad after all.] And she has the magnetism that makes an audience believe that everything she does is better than what anyone else does, even if it isn’t.

I can’t say that Ms. Osipova’s Swanilda was better than anyone else’s, although I don’t doubt that many in the audience thought so. But it undoubtedly was a superb performance, and it is a natural role for her.

For any unfamiliar with it, the story is simple (some might say simple-minded). Swanilda and Franz are a couple, except Franz has this thing for a girl, named Coppelia, who sits on the balcony of this strange old geezer’s house in a village similar to the one where Giselle lived a century or two earlier, reading a book, and looking as hot to Franz as any girl reading a book while sitting on a balcony not moving a muscle can look. Franz, who isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, tries really hard to get Coppelia’s attention, but she doesn’t react to him. Swanilda is jealous, and not a little piqued (the girl just sits there, after all), and even though Franz tries to convince Swanilda that he’s only lusted in his heart, she doesn’t believe him – which is unfortunate since the town Burgomaster announced that he’d provide a dowry to every couple who marries in the village square the next day.

The old geezer who lives in the house is the neighborhood kook named Dr. Coppelius. One evening Dr. Coppelius leaves his house to go wherever strange old geezers go, and suddenly is accosted by Franz and several of Franz’s friends. [The program describes the action as Dr. Coppelius being ‘swirled away by a boisterous band of revelers’. In New York it would have been called a mugging.] After the struggle, the key to Dr. Coppelius’s house falls out of his pocket. Swanilda finds the key, and convinces her friends to go with her into Dr. Coppelius’s house – the ‘official’ story is to see the strange goings-on in the strange old man’s house, but we all know it was really to confront Coppelia: Swanilda’s a lot more intelligent than Franz – and she’s got spunk. Swanilda and her friends go into his house, and find a very weird looking room filled with very strange looking dolls. Swanilda makes her way to the balcony, opens the curtain, only to discover that Coppelia is another of Dr. Coppelius’s dolls.

Dr. Coppelius, who had followed the girls into the house (it took awhile for him to climb the stairs), then confronts them. Swanilda’s friends escape. Then Franz, who had decided to climb a ladder to get to Juliet’s balcony while Dr. Coppelius was on his evening constitutional, enters the house through the window (adding trespassing to the assault charge), where he’s intercepted by Dr. Coppelius, who Franz hadn’t seen go back into the house. [Franz isn’t the sharpest…] Dr. Coppelius promptly pretends to be Franz’s next best geezer friend and gets Franz drunk, so he can take some life force from Franz and make the doll come to life. [Unbeknownst to Dr. Coppelius, the doll is now Swanilda, who took the doll’s place on the balcony chair when she hid from Dr. Coppelius.] Swanilda plays along with this to rescue Franz, and to provide the ballet with most of its comedy. Eventually, Dr. Coppelius discovers that the doll he brought to life wasn’t his doll, and that he didn’t bring her to life, Swanilda and Franz escape, Dr. Coppelius is humiliated, and Franz and Swanilda marry and the village celebrates.

Originally choreographed by Arthur Sainte-Leon, to music by Leo Delibes, with a libretto by Sainte-Leon and Charles Nuitter (based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann – who also wrote the story on which “The Nutcracker” is based), Coppelia was reportedly an immediate hit when it debuted at the Paris Opera in 1870. The current version, the fourth mounted for ABT, was restaged and directed by Frederic Franklin (who now frequently portrays Friar Lawrence in ABT’s production of Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”). It appears to be fairly standard, except I noticed in the last act that Swanilda and Franz apologize to Dr. Coppelius and ask his forgiveness, which he gives. Nice touch. The production also seems to have more expansive choreography for Prayer – either that or Hee Seo’s remarkably sensitive and delicate portrayal made it look more expansive. All in all, however, I prefer the version choreographed by George Balanchine for NYCB.

Ms. Osipova played Swanilda with a little Kitri added: she was a pixie with an attitude. Indeed, the role suits Ms. Osipova well – Swanilda is supposed to express emotion, which Mr. Osipova does appropriately and successfully, without overdoing it. And then there’s the dancing, and I must acknowledge that Ms. Osipova’s Act III pas de deux was simply fabulous, including perfectly executed brises that I don’t recall seeing performed in previous portrayals, and her Act II was the equal of any Swanilda I’ve previously seen.

The role of Franz also suits Daniil Simkin well. Since nobility isn’t necessary, Mr. Simkin can simply be a not very bright young man who dances really well, which he did to perfection. In terms of performing qualities, Mr. Simkin and Ms. Osipova match each other well – they both are outstanding dancers on their own, and they danced their pas de deux very well as outstanding dancers on their own.

In the Act III divertissement, Alexander Hammoudi and, particularly, Devon Teuscher gave solid performances as leaders of the Czardas. Ms. Teuscher, who I singled out in a review a couple of years ago for her performance in “Airs,” provided one of the most genuinely animated and warm performances in the role that I can remember. And in addition to Ms. Seo’s Prayer, Simone Messmer delivered a compelling performance as Dawn. The performance was complemented by an ebullient corps, as well as by a bevy of promising young dancers from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, a couple of whom I recognized from their portrayals of Clara in ABT’s The Nutcracker last winter.

Two additional comments: the scenery by Tony Straiges, particularly for Act II, was super, and mention must be made of the execution of the sculpture, dolls and marionettes by Costume Armour, Inc. and Nick Miller, as credited in the program. On the other hand, those flowered headpieces for the Swanilda’s friends look silly, and serve no function other than to camouflage the dancers and make them look like dancing daisies. They should be potted.

As I left the Met, while the standard Met standing ovation was in progress, I thought I spied some workers getting ready to install trapeze bars under the chandeliers. Ms. Osipova’s performance as Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty" is scheduled for the evening of July 6. If true, then for that performance late ticket buyers will at least have something more comfortable to swing from.

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