DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

LÉO DELIBES: Coppélia (complete ballet), Blu-ray (2011)
LERA AUERBACH / JOHN NEUMEIER: The Little Mermaid (complete ballet), Blu-ray (2011)

A Coppélia that will give you something to think about and a Little Mermaid that might leave your head reeling.

Published on February 17, 2012

LÉO DELIBES: Coppélia (complete ballet), Blu-ray (2011)

The Corps de Ballet of the Opéra Nat. de Paris / Orchestre Colonne / Koen Kessels (conductor) / Patrice Bart (choreographer) / Brigitte Lefèvre (director of dance) / Ezio Toffolutti (sets and costumes)
Cast: Swanilda – Dorothée Gilbert / Frantz – Mathais Heymann / Coppélius  – José Martinez / Spalazani – Fabrice Bourgeois
Studio: Opus Arte OA BD 7093D [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080i HD
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio / PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English/French/German (for extras only)
Extras: Cast gallery; Documentary: The Mystery of “Coppélia”
Length: 83 minutes;  Extras: 30 minutes
Rating: ****1/2

LERA AUERBACH / JOHN NEUMEIER: The Little Mermaid (complete ballet), Blu-ray (2011)

San Francisco Ballet/ Martin West (conductor)/ John Neumeier (choreography, sets, costumes, and lighting)
Cast: The Little Mermaid – Yuan Yuan Tan/ The Poet – Lloyd Riggins / The Prince  – Tiit Helimetts/ The Princess – Sarah van Patten/ The Sea Witch – Davit Karapetyan
Studio: C Major 708704 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080i HD
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 /PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English/French/German (for extra only)
Extra: “The Little Mermaid” – Behind the Scenes
Length: 119 minutes;  Extra: 35 minutes
Rating: ***

Ballet noir: Dark (Coppélia) and darker (The Little Mermaid). It gets harder and harder to find a traditional treatment of just about any entertainment nowadays, from Shakespeare to eighteenth-century opera to nineteenth-century ballet. And so it is with Delibes’ classic ballet Coppélia and Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 fairy story “The Little Mermaid.” Auerbach and Neumeier’s balletic treatment of Andersen’s tale is about as far removed from the prettified Disney cartoon version as you can get.

However, when it comes to Coppélia, Delibes and his choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon created a light-hearted entertainment based on a much darker original tale by writer and composer E. T. A. Hoffmann. In Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, a young student named Nathanaël falls in love with Professor Spalazani’s beautiful daughter Olympia only to find out that she is in reality an automaton created with the help of a diabolical scientist named Coppélius. The revelation drives Nathanaël mad and finally to his death, as he leaps from a church tower at the end of the tale.

Hence choreographer Patrice Bart’s darker contemporary treatment actually takes us back to the roots of the Coppélia story. In Bart’s reimagining of the tale, Coppélius and Spalazani trade places, Coppélius now an aristocratic middle-aged figure bent on recapturing his lost love, a beautiful ballerina. He turns to his factotum Spalazani, who creates for him a life-size doll that Spalazani plans to animate by way of snatching a living soul. He finds in Swanilda the perfect specimen, and indeed when Coppélius first sees her, he begins falling in love with her.

Swanilda makes the mistake of visiting Spalazani’s secret workshop on his invitation. She sets off several of Spalazani’s automatons and then puts on the costume of the harvest queen, complete with coronet. Coppélius, plied with opium and wine by Spalazani, sees Swanilda so attired and imagines her to be his lost beloved. Swanilda, meantime, tosses off the costume and imitates Spalazani’s Spanish and Scottish dolls, dancing so enticingly that Coppélius is further aroused and even Spalazani can’t help getting worked up over Swanilda. With things getting seriously out of hand at this point, Swanilda’s friends lead Frantz down to the secret workshop. He rescues Swanilda, and as they make their exit, the workshop literally goes up in smoke as the set rises piece by piece from the stage to reveal the city scene of the First Act.

Underscoring the darker emotional landscape explored in the ballet, Ezio Toffolutti’s sets have a subtly menacing quality: the dark urban backdrop against which the group dances of Act I unfold, the sparse basement workshop, the scrim that’s let down at the front of the stage, with its R-rated studies of the female form. In front of this scrim, Spalazani plies Coppélius with drink and drugs and mounts his plot to ensnare the soul of Swanilda. The crazily-angled silhouettes of the buildings in the street scene and Spalazani’s gritty workshop, its walls covered in geometric diagrams, “were inspired by German expressionist film—in particular Dr. Caligari—and they enhance the constant oscillation between reality and illusion . . .”

How does Delibes’ delightful music fare in the midst of all this dark suggestiveness? Quite well, actually. While visiting a bit of black magic on Delibes and Saint-Léon’s original scenario, Patrice Bart hasn’t neglected the magic inherent in the score. There are still the wonderful character dances, including a spirited czardas, in the First Act, and lovely solo turns for the chief characters, as well as intricately choreographed pas de deux and even a pas de trois for Frantz, Coppélius, and Spalazani. The dancing by the three étoiles of the Ballet (Dorothée Gilbert, Mathais Heymann, and José Martinez) is often spectacular. There’s whimsy and humor in the interactions between Swanilda and Fabrice Bourgeois’ wildly eccentric Spalazani. Both Swanilda and Frantz retain their charmingly naïve country ways even in the dark purlieus of the city, and love does eventually triumph despite the threat that hangs over it.

So this may not be your father’s Coppélia, but there is still much to delight the eye and ear here. Fortunately, both audio and video are top-notch, the camerawork subtle enough to capture the emotions on display without the illusion-killing close-ups that can mar such a production.

There are excellent performances and production values as well in C Major’s presentation of Auberbach and Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. The dancing by the principals and corps of the San Francisco Ballet is athletic and disciplined in the extreme, while the orchestra negotiates Auerbach’s angular, dissonant music as if it were a part of the standard repertoire. Even the sound from the cavernous War Memorial Opera House has excellent presence and detail. Add to that a series of eye-catching contemporary sets juxtaposed with elements of traditional Japanese theater, and you should have a thoroughly captivating experience. Should have, but don’t, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see any synergy at all between those aforementioned elements of Japanese theater—the representation of the Poet (a stand-in for Hans Christian Andersen himself), the Mermaid, and the Sea Witch, with his frightening red-and-blue face paint out of a Kabuki nightmare—and the modern, land-lubbing world of the Prince and Princess.

When we first see the Prince whom the Mermaid falls in love with, he is “absurdly playing golf” onboard ship, a ship of which he is, rather incongruously, the captain. This plot contrivance is there so he can be saved by the Mermaid when he jumps overboard to retrieve his golf ball. Later, the deck fills up with passengers who look like characters out of a 1920s ballet by one of Les Six. The sets have an intriguing Magritte-like illusoriness about them. Yet like the storyline itself, Auerbach’s music never smiles, never relaxes. It’s constantly hard and spiky like music from the Machine Age, like a Shostakovich or Prokofiev ballet score without the tunes or the mordant sense of humor.

The eponymous Little Mermaid is almost never allowed moments of grace and beauty, or if she is, I’ve forgotten them in favor of more indelible images, such as the Mermaid in a dingy-looking white leotard, without ballet stockings or shoes, being hauled around the stage or the Mermaid in a wheelchair (having lost her tail and not quite having gotten her sea legs yet) or the Mermaid brandishing a knife at the Prince and finally collapsing to the floor in a heap from which she rises in an restrained apotheosis described in the synopsis thusly: “It is the Poet’s love for his Mermaid that gives her the soul that will make her immortal, just as she, ‘The Little Mermaid,’ will immortalize him. Courageously, they search for a new world.” It’s hard to glean such uplifting conceits as immortality and courage from this final scene, just as it’s hard to get much uplift from Auerbach’s brittle music. As you can tell, despite high production values and the contribution of many talented souls, The Little Mermaid did not float my boat.

—Lee Passarella




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