Coppélia


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COPPÉLIA

Composer: Leo Delibes

Based on Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816)

First Produced: Paris, 1870

Present Company: Ballet Victor Ullate Comunidad de Madrid

New Libretto: Charles Nutter

Stage Director: Victor Ullate

Choreography: Eduardo Lao

Scenography: Carlos Pujol

Costume Designs: Pedro Moreno

Make-Up: Baltazar Gonzales Pinel

Lighting Designs: Nicolas Fishtel

Film Director: Sonia Paramo

Orchestra & Conductor ?

 

Dancers:

Coppélia - Sophie Cassegrain

Doctor Coppélius - Yester Mulens

Franz - Cristian Oliveri

Spectral Diva - Zhengyja Yu

Betty - Leyre Castresana

Rosi - Albia Tapia

Andreina - Zara Calero

D.J. - Dorian Acosta

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-25

Feature size: 14.70 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (20-23Mbps)

LPCM 2.0 Stereo

Region: All

Opera runtime: 88 minutes

EuroArts 2014

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: B

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Dancing: B+

Orchestra: A-

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: C

Image: C

Audio: A

Extras Features: D

Recommendation: C+


 

Introduction

Leo Delibes is perhaps best known today primarily for the sensual Flower Duet for two sopranos from his opera, Lakmé, which has made its way into current day pop culture from movies about vampires (The Hunger) to television commercials. He wrote two fine ballet scores: Sylvia (1876) on mythological themes and characters, which just barely maintains a place in the repertoire (I like it and am not afraid to say so), and the justly more popular Coppélia from a half dozen years earlier. There is also speculation that he also may or may not have composed the ballet music for Gounod’s opera Faust.


            

 

The score itself ranks right up there, just after the three Tchaikovsky masterpieces, Stravinsky’s first three great ballet scores, and of course, Prokofiev’s tour de force in the medium, his ravishing Romeo and Juliet. But the music is one thing, the scenario is quite another. I’ve seen two professional productions of Le Sacre - neither could make any sense of Stravinsky’s primal noises and rhythms whatsoever. His exotic Firebird is perhaps best heard under Disney’s animation for Fantasia 2000. The Sleeping Beauty contains the loveliest music of any ballet, but on the stage, after a knockout prologue and first act, it devolves into little more than a series of solo and ensemble pieces with nary a whiff of story to support them. Disney was shrewd enough to pick the best bits and arrange them to suit, which he did likewise for The Nutcracker.  If it weren’t for its Christmas setting, Tchaikovsky’s last and most enduring ballet might have ended up as an also ran. The composer is known to have thought little of it. Prokofiev’s Romeo is probably the most completely successful ballet ever composed. I’ve seen four very different and successful productions from the Bolshoi to San Francisco. With one of the most engaging stories ever written and music so affecting we can visualize the action, it’s hard to miss.


            

 

Coppélia has some of the most colorful and dynamic music composed for the stage, motivated by a delightful story about a mechanical doll come to life, but an hour into the ballet the story takes second place to little more than an endless series of passes for soloists, twosies and threesies, with only a slender connection to plot. All that remains is the opportunity for displays of virtuoso technique, some charm and a dash of spectacle. I saw a production at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre - in 1957, I think it was - that demonstrated all three with all kinds of charm and panache. Perhaps that is its point. And to that end, this new production from Madrid with its updated storyline doesn’t quite cut it. It has a wonderfully imaginative first act, and then everyone goes to a party and dances around. Ugh!


            

 

Original Scenario (edited from Wikipedia)

Coppélia concerns an inventor, Dr Coppelius – whose very name tells us great deal of his relationship to the title character - who has made a life-size dancing doll. It is so lifelike that Franz, a village swain, becomes infatuated with it and sets aside his true heart's desire, Swanhilde. She shows him his folly by dressing as the doll, pretending to make it come to life and ultimately saving him from an untimely end at the hands of the inventor.


            


Act I

The story begins during a town festival during which Swanhilde and Franz plan to marry. Swanhilde is jealous that Franz seems to be paying more attention to a girl named Coppélia, who sits on the balcony of a nearby house. The house belongs to a mysterious and faintly diabolical inventor, Doctor Coppélius. Although Coppélia spends all of her time motionless and reading, Franz is mesmerized by her beauty and is determined to attract her attention. Later, Dr. Coppelius leaves his house and absent mindedly drops his keys. Swanhilde finds the keys and decides to investigate Coppélia. As she and her girlfriends enter the doctor’s house from the front door, Franz climbs a ladder to Coppélia’s balcony.


            


Act II

Swanhilde and her friends find themselves in a large room and soon discover that the motionless people they find there are all life-size mechanical dolls, which they wind them up to their amusement. Swanhilde finds Coppélia behind a curtain and discovers that she, too, is a doll. Dr. Coppelius returns home to find the girls. He kicks them out and begins cleaning up the mess, but is distracted by Franz at the window. Coppélius invites him in, feigning friendliness. The inventor wants to bring Coppélia to life but requires a human sacrifice – he figures Franz would be suitable. As the inventor readies his magic spell, Swanhilde who remained hidden behind a curtain, dresses up in Coppelia’s clothes and pretends that the doll has come to life. She wakes Franz and then winds up all the mechanical dolls to aid their escape in the ensuing confusion. Dr. Coppelius is surprised to find a lifeless Coppélia behind the curtain.


Act III

As Swanhilde and Franz prepare their marriage vows, Coppelius interrupts the proceedings demanding damages. Swanhilde, her father and the mayor in turn placate him with money, and eventually Swanhilde and Franz are married and the entire town celebrates by dancing.

 [Accent on the whole town celebrates with dancing.]


            

 

New Scenario

Ballet Director Victor Ullate retains the mechanical doll and her maker and resets the story for his company in a cybernetics lab. Coppelius is not so much miserly as he is just one step from being a mechanical doll himself. It’s an interesting notion. Franz is a kind of workman but there is no Swanhilde. Coppelius is trying to dial in improved humanoid movement for his masterpiece, Coppélia. Three female custodians become fascinated with the dolls and exchange their work clothes for the dolls’ more interesting costumes. When Coppelius returns there are some delicious sight gags as the three women, posing as dolls, try to make their exit without being noticed. Later, a Spectre enters and makes Coppélia even more lifelike. The second (and final) act takes place at a party where the locals join in on welcoming the humanoid dolls. A DJ spins records to suit. Drinks are served. Coppélia, now fully realized, enters along with her makers, Dr. Coppelius and the Spectre, and dances with an equally transformed Franz, now like a fairytale prince.


            

 

Production & Performance

What I found particularly interesting in respect to staging was how director Ullate and choreographer Lao bring characters directly into the action - characters who, in classical settings, would just stand about while various soloists take the spotlight. This allows for the possibility of considerably more involvement in the second act, though I found that the idea of a dance party doesn’t hold our interest as did the more intimate comical, passionate and magical goings on of the first act.


            

 

That said, all of this pales in importance to the concept that drives this particular video: namely that the new scenario and choreography is worked as an opportunity to make a movie out of what is, in the first and last analysis, a stage play for dancers. The credits declare: “Un film de Sonia Paramo.” She begins her movie without further ado with Delibes’ music over an external shot of the theatre that cuts abruptly to the theatre guts and hallways where we find a goggled Doctor Coppelius peering about with birdlike gestures, looking for his doll. We see the audience gather in the hallways to take their seats and a couple of shots of the balconies, all the while the music continues and segues onto a fairly bare stage where Franz dances gaily about. This in turn gives way to three lady custodians with mops, and eventually the stage reveals itself as Coppelius’s lab with various assistances making amusing adjustments to the dolls. From here out the action remains stagebound - so much for “opening up” the play - which is the source of difficulties to come.


            

 

Even though we never see the orchestra, or its conductor (neither of which, for the life of me, could I find named in the credits), or the audience except as previously mentioned, the camera is evidently constrained by the fact of their existence. The camera frames the stage from vantage points along the front of the stage and from the other end of the hall, but never moves into the stage (except with zooms) and only moves across the front of the stage in either direction a few feet at a time. I kept asking myself: Who is she fooling? The audience remains silent until the end of each act, yet the director and choreographer join the company for curtain calls at the end. Still conspicuous by his or her absence is the conductor (Is the orchestra just a recording!?), this is just an edited filming of the performance with a brief tacked on introduction.


            

 

That said, I feel that Ms. Paramo understands neither the limitations of her medium nor the dynamic graphics of staged dance. I realize this is a bold statement coming from one who has never danced, let alone choreographed anything (though I once conducted an orchestra for a short ballet performance while in college.)  In the early 1970s I a spent a couple of seasons photographing the San Francisco Ballet. I would join other photographers in the first several rows of the orchestra during dress rehearsal, hopeful that one or more of our shots would end up in the program or on the cover. What I took special note of was the location of the choreographer (most often, Michael Smuin) – dead center and about a third or so of the way back into the orchestra. This is the vantage point where the director fine-tuned his staging, the sweet spot for someone seeking the best seat for any performance.


            

 

This then is the correct position of the camera for the master shot; and even though impracticable during a live performance it ought to inform camera placement and all other shots. This is where Paramo makes her most visible and disconcerting mistake: specifically with wide shots of nearly the full stage taken from downstage right or left (most often the right for some reason.) These are points of view never intended for the audience or anyone in it, and one uses them at their peril. To her credit, Paramo attempts to create interesting graphic relationships between the dancers at such times, and is successful on rare occasion; but whenever she cuts from one of these viewpoints to a shot from the center or vice-versa, it seems false because we realize this is a live performance and not a movie, despite what the credits say and despite the intro with Coppelius.


            

 

Eduardo Lao’s choreography is fascinating but it’s not particularly complex insofar as it involves the relative position of the dancers as they move about the stage, but Paramo’s camera seems to work at cross purposes to no point that is evident to me. She cuts too often and without regard for continuity of action. She also cuts into an ensemble with delirious abandon. While I don’t feel it is necessary to follow to the letter Fred Astaire’s instruction to RKO that he always be photographed from head to toe, there should be good reason to violate this edict other than simply to mix up the shots. Some of Paramo’s framings strike me as arbitrary, others are simply confusing.


            

 

The company and its various soloists are good, often fascinating to watch, especially the title character and her maker. The company at large is only occasionally out of sync with one another, but never to the point of complaint. On the other hand, there was one tall gal (American, I thought) with an extraordinary extension with poise to match. Watch for her duets with Coppelius in the second act. The scenario, costumes and artwork seems more interesting than the excellence of the dancers. But it does shorten my comment in this area. In any case, I found the camerawork to be so off-putting that production values and movement on stage became secondary.


            

 

Image, Audio & Bonus Features

At the risk of seeming like I’m flogging a dying horse, there is one other problem as concerns photography that goes well beyond judgment calls about camera placement and cutting, which is that one or more cameras used for master shots yield fuzzy images. This is all too frequent and annoying as hell, especially when we cut from a bad camera to one of the good ones. [See end of review for comparative screencaps.] This is simply inexcusable, and if Paramo had been watchful in this regard she would have either obtained better cameras or cut the film so as not to rely on the poor shots. For their part, EuroArts transfers the video to a single layered disc with plenty of unused space and at a moderately low bit rate that occasionally dips to 10 Mbps even while there is action on stage. Possibly for this reason, coupled with 1080i resolution, there are numerous fleeting moments where movement results in a loss of integrity.


            

 

Unlike the great majority of opera on Blu-ray, the audio for this ballet performance is offered only in uncompressed 2-channel stereo, not that I felt the loss of surround. Even so, I am surprised this “film” doesn’t have one. The orchestra sounds robust and dynamic, with reasonably true timbres and balances.  There are zero bonus features, except for a wee booklet and some ads for EuroArts releases.


            

 

Recommendation

I love this music and to my surprise that aspect of this Blu-ray was rather appealing. OK, it doesn’t have quite the magic of Antal Dorati’s recording with the Minneapolis Symphony for Mercury back in the early days of stereo, but it is better than merely serviceable. While the original story has its share of delights, this new update has smart costumes and set design and a clever idea that drives it along with an amusing and exciting first act. Even the traditional sequences of classical exchanges of the second here are given some new life that I liked. Alas, the video direction is troubling and image quality at times is downright terrible, due to reliance on either a defective camera or a drunken operator. Sorry about this one. In view of the weak-to-poor video transfer, there simply isn’t enough left to recommend. Instead I suggest you consider the Dorati on LP or CD of this ballet score and the Opus Arte Blu-ray of Sylvia, which I will get round to writing up one of these days.


            


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 4, 2014


These are 100% crops demonstrating the relative performance of two cameras used for this video. Even though the scenes are not at all identical, it is as clear that weakness of the first example is not due to mere distance from the subject or movement within the frame:

   




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