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Coppelia's three-act/scene format


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I hope my topics aren't too technical . . . this topic is broader than Coppelia itself but seems to relate.

I am interested in the three-scene or three-act format of 19th century (French?) ballets. Paquita, Coppelia and Sylvia share a similar format of three scenes (or acts), in which the middle scene/act is one that is generally shorter than the others, involves mainly the principal ballerina plus only a few other characters, and includes the culmination of the action (or at least most of it). In Paquita, Paquita escapes from Inigo and discovers she is of noble birth; in Sylvia, Sylvia escapes from Orion; in Coppelia, Swanilda escapes from Coppelius.

Are there other ballets that follow this format? Do we know when this format became standard, if indeed it was standard? The later full-lengths if Petipa, et al, in Russia do not seem to follow this format.

[ 05-20-2001: Message edited by: doug ]

[ 06-03-2001: Message edited by: doug ]

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Great question. It may be hard to tell if the second acts were really shorter, since so much has been cut (I got my "Opera and Ballet in the Time of Giselle" back and am reading what was done to "Giselle," step by step and blow by blow; great book).

However, I did read once -- before I started writing, and hence, was just reading for pleasure, so I can't source it -- that there was an ancient rule dividing comedy and tragedy: tragedies had to be have an even number of acts (2, 4), while comedies had to have an odd number (1, 3, 5). This is why "Sleeping Beauty" has a Prologue and three acts, instead of four acts (cheating is, as always, allowed).

Has anyone else read that, or anything like it?

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Originally posted by alexandra:

..tragedies had to be have an even number of acts (2, 4), while comedies had to have an odd number (1, 3, 5).  This is why "Sleeping Beauty" has a Prologue and three acts, instead of four acts (cheating is, as always, allowed).  

Has anyone else read that, or anything like it?

Very interesting observation. Does this mean Kirov either has to add act V to its Swan Lake or make do with 3 acts?


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Tragedies having an "even" number of acts seems odd to me, because in French drama, (neoclassical and romantic) tragedies do have five acts -- i.e. an odd number -- as do Moliere comedies. Phedre has five acts and so does The Misanthrope. In the romantic era, Lorenzaccio has five acts etc. and this is all pretty much par for the course...The source Alexandra is remembering may have been referring to some particular context or rhetorical handbook (?) -- I don't know much about this.

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Unfortunately, it's so long ago I can't remember even a vague source. I THINK it was an article about "Sleeping Beauty," explaining why there was a Prologue.

I thought of classical exceptions as well -- Shakespeare's tragedies and history plays are five acts, I believe.

I have no idea whether the person was a reliable source, or just guessing, or what. I really posted that to see if it rang any bells with anyone -- NOT to suggest that I thought it had a basis in fact.

[ 05-22-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Both ABT and a former RB production of Swan Lake also have a prologue...or does one only count how many intervals there are? The interval question in a production may be at least partially dependent on time factors. I remember speaking to one of the RB conductors and asking why the last act was played so quickly. Really no time at all for the dancers to breathe. He said that it was because a show is considered (by the unions) to be 3 1/2 hours from 1/2 hour before the curtain time. If, given a start time of 7:30, the show did not end before the stroke of 10:30, then the musicians would have to be paid overtime, and this would kill the budget...ergo the high-speed final act. It's better for all concerned if production designers and choreographers consider these factors when planning the production in the first place.

Anyway, LOTs of productions of Beauty are done with only 2 intervals. I've seen a Swan Lake with only 1.

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The odd/even scene/act format is so interesting. I would assume that scenes (whether or not comrpising entire acts themselves or combined to form an act) would be the deciding factor. Interesting about the BEAUTY prologue. Perhaps it was called a prologue simple because the ballerina does not make an appearance? But Swan Lake Act I (or Act I, Scene I) also is without the ballerina.

[ 06-04-2001: Message edited by: doug ]

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Yes, it is odd, Doug, and there must have been a reason for it. It isn't really a Prologue, dramatically; the real story begins with that christening.

I know that there are many different ways of presenting these ballets today, but that wasn't the question. It was trying to get at the origins of the structure in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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