The run of the Royal Danish Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House will come to an end (all too soon, alas) this weekend, but the company still had one more repertory treat in store for us last night, namely the very distinctive Danish version of the classic ballet comedy "Coppelia," which hasn't been seen in this country in 17 years. It is, in a word, a corker--exquisitely colorful in every visual aspect, brimming with theatrical ingenuity, funny, touching and superbly performed.
For many in the audience who had never seen it before, the Danes' production must have come--as it did to me--as a revelation of many sorts. Amazement began with the music. We have, of course, heard the celebrated Delibes score before in many commendable renditions, but what the orchestra gave us last night under the alert and sensitive baton of Michael Schonwandt put the whole thing in a new light. From the suavely amorous horn choir of the Overture, to the dashing Mazurka--its accents and snapping dotted figures just so--through all the familiar tunes and motifs, every cobweb seemed swept away in an effusion of robust yet exacting spontaneity. It sounded like a premiere!
Delibes' music is one constant in all "Coppelia" productions, along with (in most cases) the E. T. A. Hoffmann-inspired story, in which young Franz (the Danes call him Frants) falls in love with a lifelike doll, until his sweetheart Swanilda (Svanilda) teaches him a lesson, at the same time disillusioning the doll's maker, the weird Dr. Coppelius. Most versions known here, though, have been based on Marius Petipa's Russian staging (1884), which in turn was a modification of Arthur Saint-Leon's Paris original of 1870. The Danish "Coppelia" has a different lineage, starting with Hans Beck in 1896, passing through a number of RDB ballet masters, and most recently revised by Hans Brenaa, in the early '60s and again in 1980.
As the Danes do it, Swanilda is the only one who dances "on point"; almost all the rest of the dancing, though it has classical elements, is strongly folk flavored. In addition, there's no wedding in Act III, just a happy reconciliation. The divertissements, with the folk dance idioms again predominating, are shorter and fewer in number, and the lovers' duet is performed to the "Dance of the Hours" waltz. The storytelling mime, moreover, is inextricably woven together with the dancing throughout. The result is a homier, earthier, more intimate "Coppelia" than the Russian-derived productions, and in the Danes' masterly delivery, an endlessly charming one. Here's where the rest of the revelation came in--it's hard to recall ever seeing "character dancing" (folk dance in a ballet setting) given the kind of piquancy, vigor and inveigling contour that the Danes bestowed on it last night.
No short account could do justice to the artistry of last night's cast. Heidi Ryom, demure, agile and sweetly feisty, was a positively captivating Swanilda, and Johnny Eliasen's good-natured gullibility as Franz made a fine complement. The Dr. Coppelius of Niels Bjorn Larsen--at once crotchety, eccentric and engagingly human--is legendary, and it's easy to see why. Kjeld Noack as the Mayor, Solveig Ostergaard as Coppelia and other supporting performers, along with the entire ensemble, matched the principals in vitality and finesse.
"Coppelia" will be repeated, with varying castings, twice today and again Sunday afternoon.