Ballet comique in three acts
Music by Léo Delibes
25th May 1870
Théâtre Impérial l’Opéra, Paris
Choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon
Original 1870 Cast
5th February [O.S. 24th January] 1882
Imperial Bolshoi Theatre
Choreography by Joseph Hansen
St Petersburg Première
7th December [O.S. 25th November] 1884
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre
Choreography by Marius Petipa
Original 1884 Cast
Première of Petipa’s final revival
8th February [O.S. 26th January] 1894
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre
Original 1894 Cast
Based on The Sandman and The Doll by E.T.A. Hoffman, Coppélia tells the comic story of the doll maker, Dr. Coppélius, who has made a beautiful mechanical doll that he has named Coppélia and she sits on his balcony reading her book. However, she is so realistic that everyone mistakes her for a young girl, possibly Dr. Coppélius’s daughter, and the young Franz even falls in love with her, much to the annoyance of his fiancée, Swanhilda. Determined to discover the secret behind the mysterious Coppélia, Swanhilda and her friend sneak into Dr Coppélius’s house, only to discover that her rival is nothing more than a mechanical doll. When Dr. Coppélius returns, the girls flee, but Swanhilda hides with Coppélia and disguises herself as the doll. At the same time, Franz sneaks into meet Coppélia, but Dr. Coppélius catches him and puts him to sleep so he can use him as a human sacrifice to bring his beloved doll to life. He believes he has succeeded when Coppélia seemingly springs to life, but it is actually Swanhilda dressed up as the doll. When Franz wakes up, Dr. Coppélius realises he has been tricked and that Coppélia is nothing more than a doll. Swanhilda forgives Franz for his folly and the two are married in a feast to celebrate the new church bell.
Coppélia was first staged by Arthur Saint-Léon for the Paris Opéra and was the final ballet he created before his death four months after the ballet’s première. It was the Ballet Master, Joseph Hansen who first staged Coppélia in Russia, where many of the Parisian ballets found an extended life. This first Russian production was Hansen’s 1882 staging for the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, but it is from the late 19th century edition staged by Petipa for the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet that almost all modern versions of Coppélia derive. The first performance of Petipa’s revival was staged in 1884 for the benefit performance of the Russian ballerina Varvara Nikitina. It will never be known if Petipa retained any of Saint-Léon’s original choreography or if he was even familiar with it to begin with, though it is far more likely that Petipa staged the entire ballet in his own design. However, he certainly followed the original stage direction with regard to the action scenes and mime.
Coppélia was revived for the second and final time at the Imperial Theatres in 1894 for the benefit performance of Pierina Legnani. However, throughout 1892-1894, Petipa was suffering from a severe skin illness and was unable to direct rehearsals and/or choreograph new ballets. During his absence, Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti were tasked with taking dancers through rehearsals and supervising revivals of older works if, by chance, a ballerina’s contract required it. Such was the case when Legnani chose Coppélia for her benefit performance of the 1893-94 season.
According to contemporary accounts, Cecchetti supervised the 1894 production of Coppélia alone, though it is unknown if he made any significant alterations to the choreography. Cecchetti’s association with this production has lead many historians to credit him with the choreography for Coppélia ever since, either exclusively or partially. Considering the more or less ‘classic’ status of the ballet even in 1894, it is far more likely that Cecchetti simply took the dancers through rehearsals, though he may have revised Swanhilda and Franz’s solo dances.
Petipa’s final revival of Coppélia was notated in the Stepanov method in 1904 during rehearsals for performances starring the Prima Ballerina Vera Trefilova as Swanhilda and is part of the Sergeyev Collection.
Petipa’s revival of Coppélia was first introduced to the west in 1908 by a troupe of Imperial Ballet dancers, led by Nikolai Legat and Alexander Shiryaev with Anna Pavlova as Prima Ballerina in a tour of the Baltic States, Scandinavia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. For this tour, they a two-act abridgement of Coppélia in their repertoire. In 1910, Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin staged and performed in another two-act abridgement of the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Today, the most well-known productions of Coppélia are Dame Ninette De Valois’s production for the Royal Ballet and George Balanchine’s 1974 production for New York City Ballet, both of which are based on Petipa’s final revival. In 2009, Sergei Vikharev mounted a reconstruction of Petipa’s revival of Coppélia for the Bolshoi Ballet. The reconstruction had its world première on the 12th March at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Did you know?
- During a performance of Coppélia on the 30th September 1894 at the Imperial Theatre, a sudden tragedy occurred. In this performance, the role of Dr. Coppélius was played by the great Principal Character Dancer Timofei Stukolkin, who was celebrated for his tremendous comedic and acting abilities. But after the second act of the performance, Stukolkin suffered a heart attack and died suddenly and the rest of the cast had to quickly finish the final act without him.
Grand Pas de deux
The Grand Pas de deux of the third act has a very interesting history. In Saint-Léon’s original production, in accordance with the policies of the Paris Opéra at the time, the role of Franz was a travesty role i.e. performed by a woman in male garb. It was only when Coppélia was brought to Russia that Franz became a role for the men. Because of this, it was not until the ballet’s arrival in Russia that the piece titled “La Paix” began to serve as an adage for what is now a Grand Pas de deux classique.
As men began to take over the travesty role of Franz, things began to change in Coppélia and one interesting product of this change is the variation danced by Franz during the Grand Pas de deux. The music for this variation is not by Delibes, but by the French-American composer, Ernest Guiraud, who would later work at the Paris Opéra. The variation was composed circa. 1875. Many historians believe that this variation for Franz was added when men gradually took over the role and the 1882 staging by Hansen could very well be the production that brought this variation to Russia.
In 1904, Petipa added an extra female variation to the Grand Pas de deux, entitled “Travail”. This variation is set to the music for the male variation from Delibes’ score for his ballet, Sylvia, which companies all over the world sometimes use as an inserted variation for Franz. Petipa arranged and choreographed this variation for the ballerina, Dionesiia Potapenko as an inserted solo for her performance in Coppélia. Petipa mentions attending this performance in his diaries, calling Potapenko’s performance “awful” and going on to complain that a review in the local paper said she danced well, which he found “sickening”.
- Petipa, Marius, The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. and introduction by Lynn Garafola. Published in Studies in Dance History 3.1. (Spring 1992)
- Garafola, Lynn (2005) Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press