Coppélia has been quite a stranger to London in recent years. Ninette de Valois’ 1954 production of this rustic comedy ballet has been performed by The Royal Ballet almost 250 times, but it hasn’t been seen at Covent Garden since 2006 (although the Bolshoi brought Sergei Vikharev’s revival of the original Petipa/Cecchetti choreography, in 2010). This was a welcome return for a ballet that reeks of nostalgia, especially in the vintage designs of Osbert Lancaster (pre-dating his seminal designs for Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée by some five years).

Francesca Hayward (Swanilda) and Gary Avis (Dr Coppélius)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

This ballet interpretation of ETA Hoffmann’s dark tale (Der Sandman) of an eccentric inventor who strives to make and bring to life the perfect doll is a debatable choice for the Christmas treat, this year replacing The Nutcracker and its giant tree. It all ends happily and no-one dies but the eccentric Dr Coppélius tries to kill young Franz by transferring his life force to the mechanical doll. There is a touch of the Bride of Frankenstein about Coppélia. It might also be worth not thinking too much about the purpose for making a human-sized doll and bringing it to life, nor to dally on Franz’s reasons for trespassing into the bad Doctor’s studio. Toxic masculinity ruled in this little town!

Artists of The Royal Ballet
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It’s a ballet with the thinnest of plots, such that the third act is nothing much more than random dance divertissements, including a fairy queen and a peasant (known respectively as Aurora and Prayer), danced without obvious purpose but nonetheless with assurance by Fumi Kaneko and Itziar Mendizabal. However, notwithstanding these threadbare theatrical elements, this production soars through a triumvirate of outstanding performances in the major roles, beginning with the eccentric inventor.

Gary Avis stands in an unbroken line of wonderful character artists that have collectively provided The Royal Ballet with one of its greatest attributes. Most Christmas seasons provide Avis with the opportunity to command the stage in The Nutcracker as the enigmatic magician, Drosselmeyer, but for a change he gets to exhibit his outstanding sense of theatre as Dr Coppélius. Here was an exceptional performance that created both menace and comedy out of the complex role of this obsessional loner who likes the occasional trip to the tavern. Avis’ facial expressiveness and gestural mime reached out to the farthest corners of the auditorium in this most significant of non-dance roles.

Gary Avis (Dr Coppélius)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Alexander Campbell brought a laid-back, likeable nonchalance to the philandering Franz, providing the rationale for his eventual vindication and reconciliation with his betrothed, Swanilda. The choreography suited the lightness and elevation of Campbell’s jumps, with plenty of entrechats and jetés en tournant to suit the pinpoint sharpness of his elegant feet.

Francesca Hayward gave an enchanting performance as the ballet’s feisty heroine, Swanilda. The deceptively challenging choreography requires a finely detailed and precise technique, which Hayward accomplished with unhurried charm. I was impressed with her accuracy throughout but especially in the neat, fleet footwork of the Scottish dance in the second act. While marvelling at her outstanding technique and musicality – often just anticipating the beat – it does not come at the expense of drama since Hayward’s expressiveness nuances every aspect of Swanilda’s feelings of flirtatiousness, jealousy, anger and inquisitiveness. It was a very fine performance ideally suited to this young ballerina’s strengths and reminded me very much of both Lesley Collier and Leanne Benjamin (who has helped to coach Hayward in this role).

Francesca Hayward (Swanilda) and Alexander Campbell (Franz)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Throughout the cast, soloists, character artists and the corps de ballet were on good form although the friends’ uniformity in the first act was marginally out of synch. The rich, melodic themes of Delibes’ gorgeous score, redolent of Parisian insouciance and joie de vivre, was performed with brio by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with the welcome return of Barry Wordsworth holding the baton. Delibes' compositions of Coppélia and Sylvia rank him close to Tchaikovsky amongst the best ballet composers of the nineteenth century.

It is never easy to bring a ballet back after more than a dozen years’ in hibernation. It’s not a new production but very few people are still around to perform the same roles. Whether or not it suits the Christmas spirit, Coppélia has been missed and credit must go to Kevin O’Hare (himself a former Franz) for scheduling it and Christopher Carr and his team, including Helen Crawford (who performed in De Valois’ production on its last outing in November 2006) for such a sensitive and faithful revival of a nonsensical story that became such a charming ballet.