By Kelly Carmichael
Date / Venue: Thursday April 24th, St James Theatre, Wellington
Have you ever been convinced one of your neighbours is up to something a little odd, but also probably quite fascinating? Ever dreamt about letting yourself in while they're away and checking out exactly what's going on, perhaps playing with their amazing stuff? Coppélia, the latest Royal New Zealand Ballet production, explores this very desire weaving a romance, some beautiful dancing and plenty of comedy in between.
The ballet opens with Dr Coppélius, a misunderstood inventor and secretive neighbour, alone on stage. The doctor is played by the magnificent Sir Jon Trimmer who has danced with ballet greats Rudolf Nureyev andMargot Fonteyn and remains one of NZ's few truly international stars. As the scene dissolves and opens up, the audience gets its first look at the stunning set designed by the late NZ-born Kristian Fredrikson. In tones of rose and burnished gold framed with soft green foliage a medieval village appears. Cast in the gentle, warm light of a late European summer Fredrikson has echoed these tones in the ballet's beautiful costumes, a whirl of frothy tutus and dusky silks.
Act One introduces the the mysterious Coppélia who sits reading on balcony of a nearby house, and the soon to be married Swanhilda and Franz who attempt to gain her attention and entice her to join them. The dashing Franz, danced by rising star Kohei Iwamoto, is a little too enamoured of Coppélia for Swanhilda's liking.... prompting her to reject him and flee heartbroken. Lucy Green's Swanhilda is predictably coquettish and girl-next-door sweet, but come Act Two Green is allowed to really show off her ballet chops. Scene stealers of Act One were Katherine Grange and Joseph Skelton in the roles of Ima and Zoltan. Skelton in particular gave a beautifully crafted solo with strong movements, gaining impressive height in his leaps.
It is becoming a rare treat to see a ballet accompanied live, and Orchestra Wellington certainly didn't disappoint. Bringing richness and an extra layer of emotion to the action helped heighten this performance of Coppélia, never more so than during the exhilarating Czardas. In stark contrast to Swanhilda and her sweetness and light good-girl friends, the arrival of the haughty and sensual Gypsy women stepped things up a notch. Matched by an intense and demanding score, there may have been even more passion and fire coming from the orchestra pit than the stage.
Act Two opened with an even more breath taking set - imagine Toy Story but directed by Tim Burton, and you might come close. Its aesthetic was spooky Art Nouveau, the stage offering a magical other world only matched by Martin Vedal's sparkling choreography. Having let themselves into Dr Coppélius' house, Swanhilda and friends find a room that seems full of people, but discover that these are actually mechanical dolls, including the mysterious Coppélia. Cue much comic mischief and some of the most light-hearted and funny moments in ballet, which had the Wellington audience laughing out loud. A stand out performance by the talented and seemingly jelly limbed Paul Mathews gave several audience members almost uncontrollable giggles. Kohei Iwamoto also unveiled a surprising ability as a comic actor with a lightness of touch unusual in ballet. Jon Trimmer's bumbling but brilliant and scheming Coppélius was captivating, as was Lucy Green impersonating the doll Coppélia. Green shone in this scene, her rigid wooden limbs, awkward movements and fixed facial expression only emphasising the fluidity and girlish agility that had previously characterised her performance.
Act Three romped home in the predictable way - Franz and Swanhilde are reconciled and married happily ever after - but not before the performance turned up its ballet credentials with an array of leaps, twists and turns during the celebration divertissements. As the orchestra pushed the story and cast to a joyful finish Katherine Grange gave a beautiful solo performance, followed closely by Franz and Swanhilde's progressively faster and more jubilant pas de deux. This performance of Coppélia doesn't take a lot of risks, but it is beautifully done, entertaining ballet and veritable visual feast.