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A charming departure from Christmas ballet clichés, as the Royal Ballet goes with Ninette de Valois’s classic for its big festive show
As a sweet treat for Christmas, and a change from its usual ‘Nutcracker’ production, the Royal Ballet has revived ‘Coppélia’, last seen on the Covent Garden stage 13 years ago. It’s a delightfully silly piece, albeit with a dark undertone befitting the tale’s ETA Hoffmann origins, with an instantly recognisable Delibes score, a fantastic character role in Dr Coppélius and a spirited heroine who brooks no nonsense from anyone.
Swanilda understandably takes a dim view of her fiancé Franz flirting with the young woman who has appeared at Dr Coppélius’s window. She sneaks into the crotchety inventor’s house with her friends to confront her rival – only to discover that Coppélia is just one of a roomful of automata that the lonely eccentric has created for himself.
An elaborate trick is then played on Coppélius, who believes he has managed to use magic to imbue life into his doll (it’s Swanilda dressed as Coppélia). But all’s well by the end, and much sparkly dancing ensues.
Francesca Hayward has great fun as Swanilda, an inquisitive, assertive heroine who adds a cheeky twist to romanticism’s tropes. She’s light as a feather as she sails around the stage, delightfully convincing in her jerky doll movements, full of sass when she’s scolding Franz, or duping Coppélius, and finely detailed in her technique.
Alexander Campbell does a good job of making Franz likeable (despite his character’s shocking readiness to dally with another woman); he’s a tender partner to Hayward and manages the jack-in-the-box leaps of his pas de deux variation with aplomb. Gary Avis has a ball as Coppélius, mugging in grand pantomime style but also giving us glimpses of a sad old man’s loneliness. All show nimble comic timing.
There’s often a sense of merry chaos as Osbert Lancaster’s marvellously low-tech sets fill with hearty peasant dancing, extravagantly dressed automata or dreamily floaty ballerinas in the final act’s Masque of the Hours (where Fumi Kaneko as Aurora is a real highlight). You’ll leave with a smile on your face.