Coppélia

Ballet comique in 3 acts
Music by Léo Delibes

World Première
25th May 1870
Théâtre Impérial l’Opéra, Paris
Choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon

Original 1870 Cast
Swanhilda
Giuseppina Bozzacchi

Franz
Eugénie Fiocre

Moscow Première
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
Swanhilda
Varvara Nikitina

Première of Petipa’s final revival
8th February [O.S. 26th January] 1894
Imperial Mariinsky Theatre

Original 1894 Cast
Swanhilda
Pierina Legnani

Plot
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’ daughter, and the young Franz even falls in love with her, much to the annoyance of his fiancée, Swanhilda. Dr. Coppélius takes advantages of Franz’s love for Coppélia and attempts to use him as a human sacrifice to bring his beloved doll to life. He believes he has succeeded, only to discover that it is really Swanhilda dressed up as Coppélia and Franz finally realises his folly.

Coppelia - Giuseppina Bozzachi as Swanhilda - Paris 1870
Giuseppina Bozzachi as Swanhilda (1870)

History
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.

Marie Petipa in the Czardas (1880)
Marie Petipa in the Czardas, although pointe shoes were not part of her costume (1880)

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. In 2009, Sergei Vikharev mounted a reconstruction of Petipa’s final revival of Coppélia for the Bolshoi Ballet. The reconstruction had its world première on the 12th March at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Vera Trefilova as Swanhilda
Vera Trefilova as Swanhilda

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 and 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. 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 solo 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”.

 

Sources

  • 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