The love interest in ‘Coppélia’ is a doll
George Balanchine’s production of the comedic ballet “Coppélia,’’ danced with spunk and wry wit by the Boston Ballet, reads like a simultaneously melodic and rambunctious coming-of-age story. Its components, equal parts mime and intricate dance steps, spring straight from the lush Léo Delibes score, making it a rare find among narrative ballets: Here the music is the message, as much as the plot line and physical action are.
The story itself, told in three acts, is slim: Frantz, a peasant boy (Nelson Madrigal) loves Swanilda, a peasant girl (Misa Kuranaga), but becomes infatuated with Coppélia, a vision in pink reading on the balcony of the workshop of the mysterious Dr. Coppelius (Boyko Dossev), an arthritic old man rumored to experiment with magic. Swanilda catches Frantz blowing kisses to the studious maiden and sneaks into the doctor’s shop to learn from whence she came.
Coppélia, it turns out, is a lifesize doll of Coppelius’s making; indeed the place is overrun with others of her ilk: an Astrologer Doll, a Juggler Doll, and so on. Swanilda strips Coppélia of her finery and takes her place. Frantz, meanwhile, has climbed in the shop window in search of his crush. The doctor returns, gets Frantz drunk, then uses his spells to pull the “life’’ out of Frantz and pass it on to Swanilda cum Coppélia.
Coppélia awakens. The doctor is filled with glee. As Swanilda gains courage, her movements expand from mechanical jolts to full-out Spanish and Scottish numbers, and you know she’s out to teach both the doctor and Frantz a lesson. To the doctor she directs: You are not God! And to Frantz: The real is much richer than the ideal! By the end of Act II, you can almost hear the poor doctor exclaiming in agony: “What have I wrought?”
Kuranaga excels as Coppélia comes to life. She’s charmingly duplicitous, “following’’ the doctor’s orders while lording it over him. She’s quasi-passive as the old man pulls her to full point, then falls forward from the waist. But soon she’s flitting around the room, slapping Frantz awake and knocking the other dolls on their sides.
Dossev plays the doctor with subtlety. This Coppelius is not evil, but rather a lonely, deluded man who is so protective of his privacy because he fears losing everything. He is terrifically funny as he follows Frantz on tiptoe, or dumps out his mug of spirits so he will stay sober while Frantz passes out. But he tears at your heart when Swanilda’s ruse is revealed, realizing, finally, that not only is he not God, he is a broken man.
Madrigal as Frantz is callow but loveable. He doesn’t mean any harm; he’s just following his bliss. He and Kuranaga come together, all grown up, in Act III for their wedding celebration: They’re joined now in real love, not the pursuit of a fantasy.
Originally choreographed by Arthur Saint Léon in 1870, “Coppélia’’ is based on the book by Charles Nuitter after E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Der Sandman.’’ In choreographing his “Coppélia,’’ Balanchine collaborated with Alexandra Danilova, a ballerina famous for playing Swanilda with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The ballet, which debuted in 1974, draws its first two acts from the 1884 restaging by Marius Petipa and adds an explosive original third act, full of lilting Romanticism and brio.
In that third act, the two perform an adagio that lights up the room under seven giant bells hung by pastel ribbons. Madrigal doesn’t seem to lift Kuranaga to his shoulder; she seems to just float up there. His cabrioles slice the air; you’d swear they left sparks in their wake. Her suspensions on point reverberate like a held breath. This is the true magic of the evening. Coppeliuses of the world, take note.