- Choreographer: Arthur Saint-Léon
- Music: Léo Delibes
- Costumes: William Pitkin
- Lighting: Bob Steineck (1998); Julie Duro (2002, 2006)
- Set Design: William Pitkin
- World Premiere: Paris Opera Ballet, May 25, 1870
- PBT Performance Date: February 1998, February 2002, February 2006, April 2012
by Carol Meeder, former director of arts education
In our quest to create new and cutting edge art, we sometimes forget that what we consider traditional was itself the cutting edge of the past. Coppelia was one of those pivotal productions whose lightness and fun belie its history and significance to ballet. Two quotes from George Balanchine open the door on the importance of Coppelia. “Just as Giselle is ballet’s great tragedy, so Coppelia is its great comedy.” Refering to the music he comments, “Delibes is the first ballet composer, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are his successors.”
Premiering on May 25, 1870 at the Theatre Imperial de l’Opera in Paris, the story idea was suggested by Charles Nuitter, archivist at the Opera and theater librettist. He was familiar with E.T. A. Hoffmann’s ”Der Sandman” (1817), a dark story of obsession and madness in which a wooden doll exhibits human characteristics through the mechanical genius of an eccentric, obsessed toymaker and the evil of a wicked alchemist whose experiments sought to transfer souls of humans to other beings. Recognizing the theatrical appeal of the story’s central idea, Nuitter and his friend Arthur Saint-Léon re-wrote the story into a delightful tale of fantasy with a happily-ever-after ending for the young village couple, Swanilda and Franz, who become fascinated by the eccentric Dr. Coppelius and his unresponsive “daughter,” Coppelia.
Nuitter and Saint-Léon changed the names of the characters, except for Dr. Coppelius, and moved the location from Hoffmann’s Germany to Galicia, a province of Austria-Hungary, because it was thought to be more colorful. Today’s map finds Galicia in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The “color” of the region can be seen in the brilliant colors, heavy embroidery and elaborate trimmings of the peasant costumes, widely enhancing the designer’s palette, both then and now. It can also be heard in the rich nationalistic melodies and complex folk dances of the composer. With this pattern to follow, the artistic team of Charles Nuitter, Arthur Saint-Léon, and Léo Delibes, who had worked together on a previous ballet, began creating Coppelia.
Arthur Saint-Léon was a multi-talented figure, renowned as a violinist, danseur, and choreographer. By the mid-1860’s he was also the tsar’s ballet master at the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg, Russia and was dividing his time between there and Paris. Théophile Gautier, French writer and librettist for Giselle, wrote, “he [Saint-Léon] caused astonishment by the taut boldness of his dancing and the strength of his jump. He succeeded in winning applause for himself, not an easy thing at a time when male dancing is out of favor.”
The popularity of ballet in Paris was waning. Gloomy stories of seemingly helpless humans at the mercy of sometimes heartless ethereal visions who orchestrate tragic events rendering human beings as victims in their own destinies were not as appealing. The evolution of the pointe shoe and the ballerina, not only as a virtuoso performer but also the object of men’s affections and admiration, created a questionable atmosphere at the theater. The audience consisted mostly of wealthy male patrons including members of the influential Jockey Club who were not at all interested in seeing male dancers on the stage. However, it was their money that kept the Paris ballet going so their wishes were often granted. Having male roles played by women (en travistie) was common, a complete reversal of a past tradition when women‘s roles were danced by men. Traditionally the role of Franz was played “en travestie” at the Paris Opera until the late 1950’s. Sometimes referred to as La Décadence, this period was also responsible for the beautiful sculptures and Impressionist paintings of the ballet created by Edgar Degas, a contribution for which both ballet and the visual arts will be forever grateful.
The innovations of Coppelia affected the evolution of the art, but many experts believe the exceptional musical score composed by Léo Delibes is responsible for saving Coppelia itself from anonymity. His melodies were more lyrical than past compositions for the ballet, and his use of the leitmotiv (character themes) was more extensive and advanced. Leitmotiv in ballet was introduced in Giselle by composer Adolphe Adam, Léo Delibes’ professor at the Paris Conservatoire. With both Delibes and choreographer Saint-Léon being folklore enthusiasts, the nationalistic melodies and dances were not only prominent but also authentic. This was the first use of the Hungarian czardas, a very complex national dance, in a ballet. The czardas and mazurka dances in Coppelia were the culmination of folk dances in the Romantic ballet and a sign of things to come. The artistic cohesiveness of the work with its incorporation of national dances, technical virtuosity and divertissements were all a foreshadowing of the Classical ballet. It is thought that Coppelia was the model for “Aurora’s Wedding,” the third act of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky was a great admirer of Delibes, and there is some evidence that he was familiar with Coppelia before he composed Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky himself felt that the score of Coppelia was superior to that of Swan Lake, a matter for historic interpretation and personal preference.
It took three years to complete Coppelia because Saint-Léon was traveling between St. Petersburg and Paris. The comedy and happy ending, a new experience in Romantic ballet, packed the house. The heroine was not an ethereal vision, but a plucky young woman who asserted her importance and made her demands and expectations known to the man in her life, another new idea for the stage. Coppelia ran for three months before the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris closed it down, ending French domination of ballet forever.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Coppelia was set on the program for the 1997-98 Season when Terrence S. Orr arrived for his debut year with PBT. Having had previous experience with Coppelia, both as a dancer and ballet master at American Ballet Theatre, he was delighted. However, his pleasure subsided when he saw how tired and worn the production looked. With no money in the budget to mount a new one he decided to acquire, on his own, the beautiful production from ABT that he had grown to love. The sale, purchase, and rental of productions among ballet companies are common practices, and with ABT mounting a new Coppelia, this one was available. It was Mr. Orr’s first step toward spicing up PBT’s Coppelia. Most of today’s Coppelia productions have their basis in two well-documented Russian versions: the 1884 Marius Petitpa version which was thought to have relied heavily on the original Saint-Léon, and the revision ten years later by Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti. Petipa is credited with placing a male danseur in the role of Franz following the Russian tradition of strong male dancers. He also added the pas de deux in Act III.
PBT’s staging has influences from both ABT’s 1968 Enrique Martinez staging and Frederick Franklin’s in 1997, with each maintaining Russian roots. Mr. Orr took the liberty of enhancing the story characterizations and choreography, another artistic license afforded to those staging and directing ballets. He added Franz’s friend Heinz and four other friends, then choreographed an Act I variation to showcase the strength and talent of PBT’s men. He accentuated the independent spirit of Swanilda with humorous one-upmanship between her and Franz as they quarrel over Coppelia’s attentions. He also moved the mazurka to Act III, tying the finale to the prelude and creating a more unified theatrical composition.
Mr. Orr’s acting expertise and sense of comedic timing makes Dr. Coppelius funny yet forbidding, deserving of both sympathy and wariness. The Dr.’s interaction with his oversized book of recipes and magic provides not only amusing and entertaining antics but also authentic choreography, making it a role that requires ability in both dance and theater.
Innovation is not new; it has brought us to this place and will carry us to the future. Innovation, superior quality, and popular appeal all play a role when a work of art survives the test of time. Coppelia has passed with flying colors!