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Coppelia Question #2: Who is Coppelius?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 15 May 2001 - 12:55 AM

[Note that his house is in the same location as Albrecht's; same realtor, obviously :)]

Is he just the local toymaker? Is he a symbol of something dark and sinister? Is he a long-time resident of the village? Has he just taken up making dolls -- or, at least, letting them be seen?

#2 Juliet

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Posted 15 May 2001 - 07:16 PM

I'm not sure that a life sized, animated cutie is "just dolls..."

I think there is Something Else going on here.....

aside from a vehicle for male dancers who want to move into character roles....although he certainly doesn't get to dance much....

Drosselmeyer's cousin.

#3 leibling

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Posted 15 May 2001 - 09:29 PM

Alexandra- you mention that Albrecht's cottage is in the same area as Dr. Coppelius's workshop.... perhaps the "realtor" should realize that this is a "high-crime" district... both of these places are broken into during the ballets!! :) :)

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 15 May 2001 - 09:42 PM

I love the "high crime" district.

"Coppelia" is the last surviving ballet of what is often considered the Romantic Era (although pedants will say that it's really a ballet of the Second Empire), as "La Sylphide" is the first, and I think they make nice bookends. James starts out, all fresh and happy, looking for an ideal (woman) and running into the forest (i.e., nature) to find her. Coppelius, now as old as James would be had he either A), lived or B), walked down to Hungary having many unrecorded adventures along the way, ends the era trying to fashion his ideal out of cloth and wire.

Croce wrote a wonderful review of "Coppelia" pointing out the darker sides -- man versus woman, the feminine soul versus "the male world of machines." The notion that Coppelius is trying to control his love -- no real woman will ever bow every time he asks her to, nor switch from a Scotch to a Spanish dance so seamlessly -- is certainly timeless. That he can be so easily duped -- as was Franz -- makes a case for this being the first feminist ballet.

I think there is a lot in Coppelia.

#5 Giannina

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Posted 15 May 2001 - 11:44 PM

Gosh, and I thought it was just a happy-go-lucky story on which to hang some nice dancing. I've got to get more serious.


Giannina

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 12:39 AM

Well, Giannina, that's the way it's usually performed, so it's no wonder you look at it that way :)

#7 Michael

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 07:53 AM

It's interesting to consider Coppelius, as a figure, as the production of German Romanticism that he is. Coppelia, I believe, is based upon a story by E.T.A. Hoffman (like the Nutcracker, for that matter).

Now Coppelius, as a Romantic figure, resonates with Goethe's Faust. Coppelius is an absurd and comic figure, since the futility of falling in love with a "human" doll is evident and is meant to be evident.

But he also slightly tragic to the degree that he embodies the grand-Romantic theme of humanity desperately trying to transcend its limitations. As Faust -- the learned professor who has inquired into all categories of human knowledge -- makes his deal with the devil, not quite knowing what he is looking for but clearly looking for more than is human, so Coppelius pours over his old manusscripts to create his ideal woman.

Also remember Romanticisms fixation with "The Eternal Feminine."

The nuance in portraying Coppelius is thus that he is tragi-comic. He is absurd but also pathetic. One of the nice things about Balanchine's Coppelia (a problematic production in many ways), is the rather sad portrayal of Coppelius in the concluding scenes. He is, after all, a broken, deluded old man who has been the victim of a vicious practical joke.

The mixed portrayal of Coppelius also works well with Delibes score. There are clear musical allusions to Wagner in the score. Just think of the deep, elegiac chords in the horns with which the overture opens. But this in intermixed with the light, gay period music of the Paris Opera. The score forever shuttles between these sources.

#8 4Ts

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 11:05 AM

The Dr. Coppelius we see these days is a laughable (sometimes pitiable) figure, so lonely that he makes dolls and tries to bring them to life to fill his empty, loveless life.

But I think this view is a weakened version of an older, more frightened one, in which rationality (as science or pre-Christian magic or alchemy) becomes deranged, and tries to do what only God is allowed to do. Dr. Faustus makes adeal with the devil (Dr. Coppelius's uses a book of spells), and Dr. Frankenstein tries to find the secret of life by putting together a man from parts. These are learned men -- scientists -- not evil but terribly misguided, in the view of the Romantics.

This is anti-intellectual, at least in part, but there's a core of serious concern, too. Scientists are inclined to think solely about solving problems, whether it is curing disease or making better bombs. I recently read of "scientists" so morally clueless that the only impediment to cloning human life that they saw were technical ones. The Dr. Faust/Frankenstein/Coppelius model may serve us as a warning about the power of technology uninformed by higher values, even if we don't buy the fable (which is there in the ballet) that being learned is innately weird and strange.

#9 cargill

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 12:36 PM

I looked up a few things about Coppelia, and the basic plot summaries tend to stress the lighter side. Beaumont says Dr. Coppelius was happy with the money at the end. He also says that Franz and his buddies try to make him dance at the end of the first act, which is a much nicer thought than the usual mugging!

A few years ago I tried to read Der Sandmann (in German!), the story Coppelia was based on, and it is incredibly dark. It is interesting to see how the librettists lightened the whole mood. Other than a few names, nothing remains of the story really. There are certainly all the tendancies mentioned by everyone (and the music when Dr. Coppelius tries to steal Frantz's soul to give to Coppelia always gives me chills), but I think it is basically a comedy without a real lesson. Unlike Bournonville's Kermesse, which is a comedy with a strong message.

So for me, it works best when Dr. Coppelius is lighter, eccentric rather than truly tragic.

#10 4Ts

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 12:40 PM

Here's a link to a translation of the story:
[url="http://"http://www.mtroyal.ab.ca/programs/arts/english/gaslight/sandman.htm"]http://www.mtroyal.ab.ca/programs/arts/eng...ght/sandman.htm[/url]

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 16 May 2001 - 02:07 PM

The Danes play the score completely differently from any other company I've heard. It's robust, dark, and surprisingly masculine. (I generally think of Coppelia's score as the ideal feminine ballet music.) Their production, which endured for just about a century with very few changes, was both comic AND with darker undertones -- not as dark as 4Ts analysis (with which I agree), but definitely dark. Croce's review mentioned an interesting Coppelius whom I have never seen, not even a smidgen on tape -- Frank Schaufuss, who played him while still a young man, which Croce said added to the horror. Niels Bjorn Larsen was the dry old scientist, set on his task; the fact that he took out Franz's heart -- i.e., killed him -- didn't bother him a wit. Some of the Danish Coppelius's have been very nasty, crotchety old men who hate children, which makes the nastiness of the children easier to bear.

There's another Danish take on Coppelius that is worth noting, I think. It was hinted at in Larsen's portrayal, according to newspaper accounts, and Kronstam used it to develop a character he rehearsed but never danced on stage -- that Coppelius is Jewish (and was, perhaps, intended to be Jewish in the original production). And a Jew in the 19th century way of looking at things. This would explain why he is a pariah, kept apart from the village (of course, he could just be a dotty old man), and also why the Mayor thinks he can be bought off with money -- and (and this, again, is the 19th century stereotype) would allow himself to be bought off, even though not only his worldy possessions, but his dreams, were destroyed.

#12 Drew

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Posted 21 May 2001 - 08:23 PM

I came to the Coppelia discussion a few days late and didn't read this thread until after writing about Coppelius and Croce's writing on the ballet under the 'do you take the ballet seriously' question. I won't repeat what I said there, but strongly agree with views that take a more complex,'dark' view of C's character. I don't think it has to be played that way in any and every production, but I think the story and the music totally support that interpretation. He is, after all, a kind of would be Pygmalion...I saw Niels Bjorn Larsen and thought he was very intense, very dark -- I didn't pick up the connotations Alexandra mentions, but from what I remember it seems very likely to have been part of his thinking if not literally his actual interpretation. (Larsen was effective and, to my eyes, not "offensive," but given what I've written elswhere at Ballet Alert! people may not be surprized if I say, it hardly seems to me an interpretation that needs to be developed or underlined in modern productions...)

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 21 May 2001 - 08:30 PM

I didn't actually see it in Larsen's interpretation either, Drew. It's something I came across in a review of an earlier performance (in the 1960s) where the Danish reviewer mentioned that it seemed a subtle undertone to the character. And of course, it could have all been in the reviewer's mind.

What I remember most about Larsen (whom I saw at 70) was how individual he made the conversation. The mime really had the pattern of speech, not just stock gestures. When the boys gang up on him and start to torment him he turns to them -- angry, but too frail to fight, and they all know it -- and mimes, three gestures in quick succession, "why, why, why?" It's a small thing -- many great Danish things are small things -- but it made him so much richer a character than one grand "WHY?" as it's usually done.

The other aspect to Coppelius is that he's a loner, he lives alone. (I recently read that the Puritans believed that living alone was dangerous -- to the society, not the individual -- and banned it.) This means that no one knows him. He may go to the inn, but he's not one of the boys. And they can imagine all kinds of terrible things going on inside that house.

In Guest's account of the first Coppelia, he mentions Coppelius only in passing, btw. I have a feeling Coppelius has grown into a great role because so many great men have taken the part.

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 02 June 2001 - 05:30 PM

My reading is that he's a craftsman/artist of great genius, who has lived solely for his art of dollmaking, and has grown into himself so far, that he has excluded the rest of the world, until, Frankenstein-like, he creates "company" for himself - his "daughter", Coppelia. So, yes, he is a crackpot, and because of his genius, possibly even dangerous, but he is thwarted in his plot to steal actual life for his creation, and is brought "up-to-date" on the problems of having a wilful child by Swanhilda in masquerade.

The Royal used to have a way of softening the ending and making a "well-made play" out of the story, by, instead of having Coppelius grabbing the money and running, taking the purse upstage when he sat on a bench, glumly contemplating it. As the divertissement continued, and mostly in the breaks between numbers, byplay happened with the town children - "What's the matter, mister?" "My baby has died!" "Oh, you poor man, Mommy, Daddy, come help this poor man - he just lost a child!" After awhile, Coppelius was inviting the townspeople in, light was seen lit in the shop, happy families were admiring, and PURCHASING the Doctor's lesser former creations, and Coppelius joins in the final toast to the happy couple of Swanhilda and Franz by sending down a hook on a string to claim his glass of wine - carrying a real little girl in his arm, and the parents patting him on the back, and coveting his attention, like a favorite old uncle come back from nowhere!


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