In a festive exchange of mechanical dolls, the Royal Ballet has substituted its seasonal Nutcracker for the decidedly more earthy and comedic charms of Coppélia. Crucially, the latter toy never really comes to life – heroine Swanilda impersonates the titular doll, fooling its dotty creator Dr Coppélius – but it’s a ballet that showcases the Royal’s penchant for detailed animation and dramatic zest.
If the opening act ensemble seem slightly ill at ease turning somersaults over each other’s arms in the mazurka, or hooking themselves precisely on to the beat of Delibes’ sparkling score, it’s probably because company founder Ninette de Valois’ 1954 production hasn’t been seen at Covent Garden for 13 years. A cornerstone of company heritage, with gorgeously colourful storybook designs by Osbert Lancaster, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s totally in the dancers’ blood. This is a minor nit-pick though.
As well as dramatic clarity, de Valois famously championed fleet, neat footwork – Francesca Hayward, stepping into the role of boisterous Swanilda for the first time, expresses so much of her character’s cheeky chutzpah and nimble wit through the mirthful rise and fall and resolute snap of her feet.
Delicately lyrical, Hayward also proves a natural comic performer with a fine line in disgruntled moues, double takes, knock-kneed terror and satirical side-eye – it’s a quality that comes to the fore in the second act when she sneaks into Coppelius’ workshop, unleashes havoc with the dolls and dupes the doctor (Gary Avis) into believing that his beloved creation has actually come to life.
It’s here that the strange pathos and darkness combine in Avis’ cartoonishly cranky Coppélius. The girlish golem he believes he’s created might be a substitute daughter to alleviate his loneliness (amid the prototype horses and knights, there’s a little row of cut-out familial figures lining the top rafter of his domain, poignantly out of reach) but he’s still determined to make her do his bidding. Swanilda has other ideas though, gallantly rescuing her straying swain Franz (Alexander Campbell) in the process.
Campbell’s Franz is like an 18th-century Galician version of an amiable jock: bollock-brained and susceptible to booze, dim-witted enough to fall for a doll, he nonetheless has enough simple swaggering charm to make a compelling – if not entirely forgivable – love interest. Campbell and Hayward have a sparky partnership and though there’s a touch of tension in the final pas de deux, with its demanding balances and hops on pointe, the sense of fun remains undiminished, while Fumi Kaneko brings a flashing attack to her Aurora solo in the third act’s allegorical divertissements.
Under Barry Wordsworth’s baton, the orchestra brings agility and warmth to Delibes’ melodic gift of a score, with all its clever variety and narrative impetus.