Russian State Ballet of Siberia perform Léo Delibes's fantastical, folksy story during a tiring run at the Grand Opera House
Coppélia is one of the prettiest ballets in the classical repertoire. Young, fresh, sweet and folksy, it needs little more than colourful set and costumes, clearly defined mime and storytelling skills, and crisp dancing to convey the admittedly rather silly tale of Franz, a feckless village boy who turns his back on his charming fiancée, Swanhilda, for the lure of a wide-eyed mechanical doll.
On this, the seventh stop of its gruelling three-month, 20 venue UK tour, the Russian State Ballet of Siberia – otherwise known as the Krasnoyarsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre – duly tick most of those boxes at the Grand Opera House in Belfast.
This may not be overtly challenging material with which to work, but there are unexpected elements of Coppélia that single it out, not least its comedy, its knowing sense of humour and its masterful score by the French composer, Léo Delibes. After all those mournful 19th century Romantic ballets, awash with dying swans, jilted brides and ghostly wraiths, it daintily skipped onto the Paris stage in 1870 in a manner that delighted that city’s bourgeois cultural elite.
Musically, Delibes was something of a Renaissance man, equally at home with church organ and choral music, incidental music, light opera, high opera, ballet and vaudeville. Along with fellow composer Jules Massenet, he journeyed to Hungary with the shared aim of transcribing the ethnic music of Eastern Europe.
In the process, he fell under the spell of its folk traditions. His skill in incorporating these motifs into a classical ballet score is vividly illustrated in the final scene of Coppélia, in which the marriage of Swanhilda and Franz is celebrated with a dazzling succession of national dances like the czárdás and the mazurka.
There is a charming simplicity about the company’s presentation, which is clearly influenced by the practical demands of non-stop touring. Against a delicately painted backcloth, Dmitry Tcherbadzhi’s set pitches us into a toy town scene, straight out of a pop-up picture book. His decision is dictated by the fact that the ballet’s very title refers not to a living, breathing human being but to a doll. She is the creation of Dr. Coppélius (a cannily engaging performance by company veteran, Alexander Kuimov), the local toymaker who enjoys dabbling in magic. Inside his gloomy workshop, faceless soldiers, knights and damsels stand motionless, awaiting the turn of the magician’s key.
In our first encounter, the cheery boys and girls of the village of Galicia stand rooted in their native soil, their facial expressions as fixed and unblinking as that of the sweet-faced mannequin perched on a balcony above them. They spring into action in a flurry of embroidered silks and velvet, heralding the arrival of Maria Kuimova’s winningly expressive Swanhilda and Kirill Litvinenko’s youthfully appealing Franz.
There is a stark discrepancy, however, between the two strong, focused central performances with the ragged, low-energy efforts of some members of the corps de ballet, who already look as though the long days on the road are catching up with them. Kuimova amuses and thrills in equal measure, bringing delicious comic touches and plotting to her fine classical technique.
Litvinenko partners her with supreme skill, demonstrating a high degree of gentle precision and physical strength, while contributing some heart-stopping solo variations on a stage whose tight dimensions sometimes threaten to restrict his brilliance. Their tender pas de deux in the third act is a thing of genuine beauty.
It is a joy to hear Delibes’s colourful score played live by the Russian State Ballet Orchestra, in spite of a few uncertain moments under the baton of Alexander Yudasin. And there are a handful of nicely delivered cameo roles too, most memorably Yury Kudryavtsev’s Burgomaster, Anastasia Terenteva’s perky Town Celebrity and Yana Tugaeva's mischievously beguiling Coppélia Doll.
The company's packed five-day repertoire at the Grand Opera House includes three other evergreen classical favourites, namely La Fille Mal Gardée, The Nutcracker and – what else? – Swan Lake.
Russian State Ballet of Siberia performs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until Saturday January 24.