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Coppelia and the Viennese Hesitation

If you are hardwired with a cultural affliction like mine, if you find yourself with a compulsive affinity for the waltz, I’ll wager you will also be a sucker for what’s called the Viennese Hesitation. It was just such a hook that led me to a Slav melody that immersed me into a ballet called Coppélia, two days ago, and I still haven’t surfaced.
 
Any fan of ballet, or parent whose child has studied dance, will know about this beguiling comic classic. To the rest of us unwashed, Coppélia or The Girl with Enamel Eyes, draws a blank, likewise even of its composer, Leo Delibes. Most of us outside the world of dance think ballet is all nutcrackers and swans, or the usual literary themes transposed to choreography. What are ballets but silent films to opera’s talkies? In today’s terms, ballet scores were the first soundtracks, and if you find new film scores overwrought, you might be delighted to alight on Delibes and his clever heroine, yes, Swanilda.

The title character Coppélia is actually a doll, the creation of aging Dr. Coppelius in his efforts to fashion his idealized bride. Seated in a window above the square, the mechanical beauty entrances the village boys, in particular Swanilda’s suitor Franz, so it falls to the assertive girl to break the spell. Hilarity ensues. Or, beyond the traditional lighthearted reading…

You may not recognize the name Delibes, but you know his Mazurka. And I’ll bet you can hum his Pizzicato (a divertissement from Silvia) in its entirety. Tchaikovsky said if he’d fully appreciated Delibes’ mastery of composing for the ballet, he would not have dared write Swan Lake.

If you’d like to share my Coppélia experience, I’d love to curate it for you. Start with the Royal Ballet production available on Youtube, mostly because the entire performance is there, and its intertitles explain the plot. There are more lauded productions, but Youtube has enough of their highlights to satiate without testing your patience with Netflix. That said, you’ll want to put the 1994 Lyon Ballet adaptation to the top of your queue now, because we want to save that for last.

The 2000 Royal Ballet production provides an ideal example of a classic interpretation of COPPÉLIA on a Disney budget. The comedy is writ large enough for opera glasses in the nosebleed seats. The choreography is traditional with a Sorcerers Apprentice perfection to it. The costumes are precisely Galician, where this adaptation of a Hoffman tale is set, an agrarian village in a region now part of the Ukraine, but in 1870 belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The red boots go to the Hungarian wine makers who dance the Csardas, and the black boots to the Mazurka dancers returning from the wheat harvest.

Unfortunately the Royal Ballet appeared satisfied to play to the popular misconception that the story of Coppélia is a trifle. I’ll suggest as a rebuttal the 2001 production staged by the National Ballet School of Paris, where the students were clearly able to imbue the lovers with emotion and spirit. This Swanilda is danced by a 16-year-old ballerina, by coincidence the same age as the Italian-Parisian who originated the part before she succumbed to disease after the 18th performance, during the Prussian siege of Paris.

The student production dispenses with Act III, which was all divertissements as you’ll have noted, beautiful musical scenes, but extraneous to the plot, although the love story looses the enchanting La Paix (Peace) variation and the Dance de Fete pas de deux. But they manage to sneak in Act III’s La Fileuse into a dance.

By the way, in my opinion this production makes the very best of the aforementioned hesitation, basically a hanging pause. There’s a suspended hesitation inherent in every waltz, Viennese or otherwise, but Delibes renders this one monumental. In the Theme Slav in question, the fickle Franz punctuates each break with an entreaty, and each time Swanilda resumes her dance. Other choreographies of the Them Slav don’t even slow for those moments, some notably expunge the hesitations from the score altogether.

(Note: If you are curious about the solo for Franz interposed into this variation, it’s a short Scena taken from Act II of Delibes’ 1866 ballet The Source.)

You can compare and contrast or not, but I will suggest checking on other Swanildas to flesh out the flirtations, coy games and lovers quarrels of Act I. For example, ?do not miss Lucia Lacarra of the Munich production, in particular this less coy prelude to the Ballade de L’epi.

For a heartier rendition of the first folk dance, check out the 1993 Kirov Ballet Mazurka.

You will want to see Lisa Parvane of the 1990 Melborne Ballet, in the denouement of Act II, made to dance for Coppelius’ amusement, the Boléro Spanish dancer, and Gigue referred to as the Scottish reel, (actually “Gigue” pronounced in French is Jig), but mostly for the cathartic finale, where the mad Coppelius does not merely mourn the broken mechanical doll, as Delibes’ score makes clear, his heart breaks.

Where the students of Paris may have glossed over the old man’s loss, they did grasp the sociological theme of this tale, natural versus unnatural love, nature versus industrial modernity. The violin Ballade de L’Epi, where a spear of wheat is shaken to reveal if you’ve found true love. We know it as plucking the daisy. But where we’ve come to leave the outcome to chance, in a farming community the answer is sought from nature. Green grains will remain silent until they’re ripe and ready for harvest. This concept is faithfully conveyed by the students, as was the sequence which preceded it, where the tinkerer’s labors to animate his lone world are derided while the villagers anticipate the next day’s social festivities.

If you’re still looking for what makes COPPÉLIA more than a silly tale, you’re ready for the absolutely mesmerizing modernized interpretation filmed by the Opera Ballet de Lyon.

Lyon is not coincidentally France’s industrial center, and here the Coppelius malaise is contemporary. Ballet purists appeared to be aghast, and isn’t that the surest sign of a heretical message? Extracts one and two are online and make obvious this production pulls COPPÉLIA right back from the purgatory of children’s repertory. And here it helps I think to know the tale they’re supposed to be telling, to see what they really have to say. The peasants of Lyon are today much the wiser to the false reality foisted upon them by industrial culture. Their Mazurka is a silent glare. Swanilda’s waltz is a childish mocking of the inanimate Deneuve clone.

While some have describe the Lyon staging as a new twist on the tale, I’d say it’s a brilliant reexamination that gets to the core of why Coppélia became an immediate classic in the first place.

An aside about the Theme Slav. Like Offenbach and other contemporaries composing for the ballet, Delibes borrowed from folk melodies to inform his dances. His partner Saint-Leon returned from travels in Eastern Europe praising this popular melody he had overheard. The Slavic theme turned out not to have folk origins at all, but was a piece by composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, actually Poland’s national composer, author of numerous ballets and operas. Delibes gave credit where it was due, and the Slav melody stands out from among the indigenous varieties. At seven minutes it is Coppélia’s longest sequence. But it was Delibes who lent it the memorable hesitation motif which permeates the score.

In the Lyon production the musical hesitation comes in an early variation, a dramatic leap that already feels like it will haunt me forever.

COPPÉLIA celebrates the strength and wisdom of women, and nature, to overcome a young man’s hesitation, where that of the old man may be doomed, and his technology damned.

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