PNB introduces its Coppelia this weekend at McCaw Hall

By R.M. Campbell

Before both “Swan Lakes,” “Romeo and Juliets” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Nutcracker,” in Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak’s production,” “Sleeping Beauty,” Merry Widow” or “Cinderella,” there was the sturdy “Coppelia,” bringing sunlight to everyone in its presence despite its unremarkable qualities. It entered the repertory in 1978 but has been in retirement for a while, waiting for a successor. Now it has one — splendid, engaging, charming and full of all sorts of dancing. Its premiere was this weekend at McCaw Hall.

The work is a masterpiece, even if it doesn’t seem so, and it possesses one of the most amiable scores, by Leo Delibes, in ballet history. Its tunes may not possess the emotional resonance and power of Tchaikovsky, but they are felicitous, melodious and warm.

This new “Coppelia” has many similarities to the old “Coppelia,” Like so much in the ballet world, unlike any other art form, the work has multiple sources, beginning with the original of French choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon. But only bits from the Paris premiere in 1870 remain intact. Marius Petipa, with help from Lev Ivanov, was among the first to recast “Coppelia” in a different light some 14 years later in St. Petersburg. Petipa eliminated the travesty roles and gave Franz, the leading male character, back to the men and a substantive life on stage. The role was danced by a “luscious ballerina” at Paris Opera Ballet until the middle of the 20th century. Enrico Cecchetti , the Italian choreographer and famed teacher at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, did some restaging of the ballet in 1894. This version made its way to the Royal Ballet in London, the Ballets Russes and New York City Ballet in 1974. Stowell, then co-artistic director of PNB, cherry-picked what he wanted and created his own choreography.

The 1974 choreography is what we see on stage at McCaw Hall, the first new full-length, created in PNB’s studios, in seven years. It is the choreography that hooked a very young Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB, on ballet in general. The role of Franz was first danced by Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco, which is co-producing the production.

There is a huge temptation, especially in opera, but ballet is not immune to recast old works in a modern light, often ineffectively. Thank goodness that has not happened with this “Coppelia.” It is the sort of work that needs its storybook setting, which it has been given. This is what is on stage at McCaw Hall. At first one might have questioned the need for another Balanchine ballet in PNB’s repertory which has so many of them already. But when one sees this “Coppelia,” those nagging doubts disappear. If applause is any indication of future popularity, ” the ballet is going to be a hit.

Wisdom was self-evident in many ways in the creation of this production beginning with the commissioning of Italian designer Roberta Guidi du Bagno to do sets and costumes. There is freshness everywhere, beginning, in Act I, with the teapot house of Swanilda and coffee pot house of Dr. Coppelius., and the most gorgeous roof of wisteria in full bloom. The Act II house of the good toymaker is equally deft, for different reasons. His studio is full of shadows and seemingly ominous mannequins hanging from all sorts of corners, with the crooked shelves and stashes of large books. The third act is back in the sunlight, a garden with Italian statuary and columns and giant bells. It has nothing to do with the first act, although it should, except for the wisteria. But does anyone care? She has invested a light and airy palette on her decor which suits the ballet and its comedic mood. Her costumes are even more remarkable, rather like some of Sendak’s costumes in PNB’s “The Nutcracker”: folds of gentle pastels and a soothing legato of colors. It will take a while to see all that she has done. Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting design is apt and adds to the character of the whole.

This production uses all of Balanchine’s choreography. It is supported by Delibes’ entire score, plus excerpts from two of his other ballets, “Sylvia” and “La Source,” all of which was ably performed by the PNB Orchestra, conducted by Nathan Fifield, one of two guest conductors for the run, which ends June 13. The orchestra sounded well under his direction except for occasional problems of pitch and ensemble. Judith Fugate and Garielle Whittle staged the work with keen memories and insights into the Balanchine style, giving the ballet shape and meaning.

The demands of “Coppelia” are huge with virtuosic steps all along the way. The dancing was genteel and rich in tradition, wonderfully elegant and ebullient. The corps de ballet danced well as did those two dozen girls from the PNB School in “Waltz of the Golden Hours” in the final act. How thrilling it must have been for them on Friday night to dance with the excellent Rachel Foster.

There are several casts. Boal is dancing in two performances (the final one Saturday night) the role of Dr. Coppelius. With his wit and appealing stage presence, it is not hard to see why he would be attracted to the role. Others are Olivier Wevers, a natural comic; Jordan Pacitti, whose gifts in that department are considerable. Jeffrey Stanton danced the role on Friday. He was amusing, a real human being with a strong ego and sensitivity. He was the butt of jokes and got roughed up by the village boys, including Franz, none of whom appreciated the genius of his work. But those in the audience will. Mara Vinson danced Swanlida. This was a bittersweet moment because she is leaving the company at the end of the season for reasons as yet unexplained, according to company officials. She joined the company as an apprentice in 1999 and became a principal three years ago. She is a dancer who is light and fast and graceful. Her technique has developed into the virtuosity it is today. The role is immensely difficult from all sorts of angles — delicacy coupled with boldness and an ability to act. Vinson, as she has many times in the past, demonstrated her panache, her refinement, her electricity Friday night. She has made so many contributions over the past few years, I don’t like thinking she will not be here shortly. James Moore is usually associated with the modern repertory, which he does very well. He has not gotten so many opportunities that allow him to revel in the glories of classical dance. In Franz he revealed his depth of technical resources. He has considerable stage presence and provided a keen look at this self-assured young man with a roving eye. His large scale bravura was in good combination with Vinson’s smaller scale thrills. In other solo roles, in addition to Foster, are Lesley Rauch, Kylee Kitchens and Chalnessa Eames as Dawn, Prayer and Spinner, respectively. They were uniformly excellent. So too the lead couple in “Discord and War” — Carrie Imler and Karel Cruz.

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4 thoughts on “PNB introduces its Coppelia this weekend at McCaw Hall

  1. Unfortunately we have been subjected to 5 years of directionless programming under Peter Boal. The inclusion of Coppelia must be his most schizophrenic feat to date. Stowell’s production (which PNB already owns) may not be the most stellar but to spend 1.3 million on Balanchine’s Coppelia (arguably his most trivial and uninventive) is simply irresponsible in light of the current financial situation.

  2. I agree with Ron. Anonymous perhaps haven’t seen the production yet. This production was amazing and from what I heard many generous donors were trilled to bring a fresh production of a full lenght to the Pacific Northwest.
    I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to enjoy the shows this past weekend.
    Thank you PNB, Peter Boal and all the donors that made this possible!

  3. I saw the Thursday production and cannot disagree with Anonymous more. PNB began the Coppelia project 4 years ago, when the economy was strong. The financial investment was made over the past 4 years, to stop this year, after all the investment has been spent would be ridiculous. In addition, San Francisco Ballet (SFB) is splitting the bill, and Boston Ballet has already rented the sets and costumes for their production, which brings in some rent money to offset the cost of the sets.

    I also disagree with the idea that the past 5 years of programming have been a failure, quite the opposite! My family decided to renew our season tickets because the programming has been so strong! We have had to cut back in other areas, but we still subscribe to PNB (although at a lower price point than before), because we believe in PNB and Peter Boal’s artistic direction!

    Petite Mort, Romeo et Juliette, all the recent Ulysses Dove works, all the recent Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp – they are all wonderful additions to the PNB rep. I have thoroughly enjoyed my evenings at PNB over the past few years.

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