The Academy of Music in Philadelphia was near full on opening night of the Philadelphia Ballet’s production of “Coppelia,” with its dynamic score by Leo Delibes, choreographed in 1870 by Arthur Saint-Leon, based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s. It is a 150 year-old warhorse that can look like a dusty storybook pageant if it isn’t tweaked. It requires a strong cast that can handle its virtuosic balletics laced with character dance and physical comedy. And that is certainly the case in this sharp adaptation by PB’s artistic director Angel Corella.
Principal dancer Mayara Pineiro brings everything in her role as the mischievous Swanilda, with prima ballerina virtuosity that can switch from a pirouette to campy physical comedy this side of Lucille Ball. Her comic foil Franz is danced by Ashton Roxander, who has his own comic talent in addition to lyrical aerial skills.
The corps de ballet and soloists also have a lot to work with feature divertissements which are spread out over the ballet’s three acts, cued by Delibes’ score, also full of dance delights. The score has some famous passages, but conductor Beatrice Jona Affron and the PB Orchestra detail the symphonic colors and rich dance themes that flow throughout this underappreciated classic.
In the opening scenes, Swanilda schemes to win the attention of Franz, who is apparently smitten by beauty sitting in the balcony of Dr. Coppelius’ workshop. Franz clowns around with Swanilda with some catch-me-if-you-can swagger, with interludes of Delibes’ straightforward courtly dance music cueing the czardas and mazurkas (led by the Sydney Dolan), which can often look rote. Corella made sure the ensemble danced with both precision and flair.
Swanilda enlists her friends to go along with her schemes. Meanwhile the suitor has fallen in love with the doll, who is robotically animated. Coppelius gets Franz drunk, consults his giant medical book to bring his Coppelia doll to life, as he consults his oversized book of spells.
Swanilda has taken the doll’s place on the balcony and plays him for the dance fool, as Dr. Coppelius does consult his magic tome of spells that he thinks changes his mechanical doll into a woman. Pineiro’s transformation from a robotic doll dance into a prima ballet is hilarious and mesmerizing, as she sinks into a spiderly plie on pointe, and twists with her legs inward.
Eddy Tovar, Director of Philadelphia Ballet II, plays Dr. Coppelius, a plum character role requiring deft pantomime laced peppered with physical comedy, and Tovar makes the most of it with bumbling, curmudgeonly charm with Swanilda or fencing with his cane when with Franz’s friends try to punk him.
‘Coppelia’ is a treasure trove of virtuosic ballet variations. The fact that the bravura elements are played off of character comedy makes it all the more enchanting. All of the doll parts in Act II are captured with a wily creepiness, framed by the gothic eaves of the workshop. There are both comic and eerie moments by Charlie Clinton and Federico D’Ortente as the mechanical dolls sprung to life.
Dayesi Torriente’s spirited solo as Dawn opens the last act, followed by the quiet deportment of Oksana Maslova at once steely and ethereal, in her adagio solo. An ensemble of eight corps de ballet members appear in the ‘Waltz of the Hours’ finale as Pineiro and Roxander cap everything off in their central pas de deux, set to Delibes’ viola passage and beautifully performed by Ballet Orchestra’s principal violist Hannah Nicholas.
Roxander’s sustains breezy command in his scissoring jumps, double tours, flinty jetes and grande pirouettes garnering lusty applause. Pineiro’s pointe work is diamond hard, witty, and lyrical. They have palpable chemistry in their central wedding duet.
Angel Corella came onstage as the cast was taking their final bows to announce that Ashton Roxander was promoted to the rank of Principal Dancer. Ashton looking genuinely surprised by this, and wiped away a few tears to step forward to receive thunderous reception from this audience.