NBT’S CONDENSED COPPELIA
By: Hal de Becker
Lasting less than an hour and a half, including the intermission, Nevada Ballet Theatre’s ‘Coppelia’ at The Smith Center, as choreographed by James Canfield, was a drastically abridged and reconstructed version of the famed comedic ballet classic
None of the changes were an improvement on the traditional version and merely served to highlight Canfield’s apparent inclination to do things differently for no other reason than to be different.
The traditional version of ‘Coppelia’ is in the repertoires of dance companies worldwide (NBT possesses two other renditions of it, one by Bruce Steivel, the other by Jean-Paul Comelin) and the musical score by Leo Delibes abounds in lilting melodies and sparkling themes for national dances.
Of the original three act version, choreographed by Arthur St. Leon in 1870, only the first two acts have survived. Over the years the problem of the missing third act has been variously solved, sometimes by adding a second scene to act two or by creating an entirely new third act.
Fortunately the original libretto describing the action of the third act has survived. From it a satisfying and fairly standard conclusion to the ballet has evolved into a divertissement or series of dances that culminate in a wedding celebration for two of the main characters.
Canfield’s own peculiar solution to the missing third act problem was to open with the second act, close with the first act and eliminate the third act altogether. It sounds nonsensical and it was.
His now familiar explanatory devices of descriptive program notes, spoken word narrations and tableau vivant prologues failed to unravel the matter. What the detailed program notes for his diluted ‘Coppelia’ actually described was the traditional full length three act ballet which was not, of course, the one seen on TMC’s stage – at least not this time.
In order to metamorphose the first act into the concluding act, it would have been necessary to strip it of some lovely solo and ensemble dances including the famed czardas, as well as obliterate its logical storyline. Well, that is exactly what Canfield did.
As his Act One opened (really Act Two) we saw a lead girl and her six companions sneaking into a darkly menacing room peopled with life sized dolls. Whose room is it? Who are these girls? Why are they there? Where did they come from? How did they get in? Confused? Well, don’t forget, this is a ballet in which Act One is replaced by Act Two which becomes Act One which becomes Act Three, sort of. Got it?
Those questions would all have been answered had we been seeing the ‘real’ Act One instead of Canfield’s mere variation on a theme.
Then we would have already seen fickle Franz strutting and flirting with the pretty doll, Coppelia, that he believes is a live girl. And we would have met his fiancée, Swanhilda, who from her hiding place jealously watches him ogle the doll which she too believes is alive.
We would also have noted the eccentric old Dr Coppelius leaving his workshop and, after being teased by the rowdy young villagers, losing his key; and then Swanhilda finding it and persuading her friends to accompany her inside to confront her supposed rival, Coppelia.
That and much more of the story, together with the delightful dances, music and mime that conveyed it in the original acts, were eliminated in Canfield’s mutation.
Only the workshop scene, the original second act, now Canfield’s first act, was presented with few changes from the standard versions performed elsewhere and seen on DVDs. Consequently, it was amply amusing though more in the way of an isolated comedic skit than part of an extended story ballet.
Alissa Dale and Mary La Croix had been scheduled to alternate in the role of Swanhilda but La Croix suffered a last minute knee injury and Dale rescued the situation by dancing both performances.
Dale recently performed the coveted role of the imperious Swan Queen in NBT’s Swan Lake Act Two at TSC and was richly acclaimed. In assuming the role of the feisty village girl she moved into a different non-regal dimension of the balletic spectrum and did so gracefully.
She mimed the role with charm and clarity, and her slender lines, effortless technique and fluidity of movement were a pleasure to watch. Her impersonation of a robotic doll was delectable.
Her Franz was Stephan Azulay. His solo in the final act was technically clean and pleasing but elsewhere his acting and partnering were bland and tentative.
Gene Lubas brought appropriate humor to the role of Dr Coppelius without making him a clown. His portrayal tried to show Coppelias’ happiness when Swanhilda persuades him that she is his doll come to life and his broken heart when he discovers he’s been deceived.
If Lubas was not entirely successful in arousing the customary sympathy felt for the dotty Coppelias it was because the choreography gave him little opportunity to fully develop the deeper, more sensitive aspects of the role.
Betsy Lucas, always fleet of foot both on and off pointe, delivered an outstanding performance in her brio solo, ‘Harvest.’
There was a predictable incongruity in the adagio performed by Samantha Chang and Steven Goforth who portrayed a priest. They both danced well and displayed considerable talent. But having a priest in a cleric’s white collar and floor length black cassock partner a pretty young village girl in a poetic duet suggests questionable choreographic judgment especially these days.
But overall, the ballet’s choreography was agreeable if not unique. The pleasingly patterned ensemble numbers were the most appealing. All of NBT’s artists danced with unerring skill and were clearly capable of executing more interesting, complex choreography.
The orchestra under the baton of Jack Gaughan provided reliable support for the dancers, but there were times when it sounded more like a brass band than a symphonic ensemble.
Costumes by Desmond Heely were fresh and colorful but redundant. A few tutus would have been nice to see to relieve the ubiquitous skirts. His scenery for the opening workshop act was eye-filling and elaborate in the style of what might be called Disney fantastical. It was indeed heavy and foreboding perhaps too much so. It wasn’t attuned to the character of the reclusive, doddering old Dr Coppelias.