Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Great Performances: Coppelia

Anyone who remembers Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd belting out Wagner in What’s Opera Doc? knows classical music and animation are a match made in heaven. Chuck Jones may have brought some opera into cartoons, but directors Jeff Tudor, Steven De Beul, and Ben Tesseur managed to fully integrate live ballet with animation in their hybrid production of Coppéllia (based on a previous Dutch National Ballet staging), which premieres Friday on PBS, as part of the current season of Great Performances.

Obviously, this is not a traditional production of
Coppéllia, starting with the new music composed by Maurizio Malagnini. You can still see the Tales of Hoffman source material easily enough, but this Coppéllia is much less dark. In fact, it is downright sunny and vibrantly colorful.

Swanilda now goes by Swan, but you have to read the credits to know. It turns out she and Franz are both quite smitten with each other, but so far, they have been too shy to act on their attraction. He works in the bike shop and she is a barrista, which means she keeps busy, because the whole town’s social life and economy seem to revolve around afternoon coffee. However, things start to change when the mysterious Dr. Coppelius opens his factory. Ostensibly, he is selling haute couture, but he is really manufacturing female automatons. To bring his favorite to android life, he needs to steal the life force of the villagers—and Franz’s mojo is particularly potent.

Although the tone is generally bright and upbeat, many of the production’s retro science fiction visuals look like they were inspired by
Metropolis, which makes sense, since the dialogue-free ballet largely functions like a silent film. Malagnini’s score maybe isn’t especially memorable after the fact, but it mostly quite peppy and buoyant. There is even a hint of Raymond Scott-ish whimsy here and there (but just a hint).

The animation (both 2D and 3D) is also quite impressive. Frankly, there are times when it is hard to distinguish the background animation from the cartoon-styled set and prop design, which is actually a great compliment to both.

Even if you know little about ballet, it is still plainly evident Michaela DePrince and Daniel Camargo are talented dancers. However, it is their dramatic rapport that makes the relationship between Swan and Franz so appealing, even though they never speak a word. Vito Mazzeo looks like a cartoon villain and he appropriately glowers and chews the scenery accordingly. In addition, Swan’s friends (Nancy Burer, JingJing Mao, and Sasha Mukhamedov) and Franz’s friends (Timothy van Poucke, Sem Sjouke, and Edo Wijnen) give them some nice support in terms of energy and dance. They almost come across like a ballet version of Mystery Incorporated or the Drew Crew, which befits the spirit of things.

This is a very cool looking production, but it is still completely legit ballet and classical music. Frankly, PBS should frequently rebroadcast
Coppéllia, because it should be a most efficacious thin-edge-of-the-wedge to get kids interested classy culture. Very highly recommended for fans of ballet and animation, Coppéllia premieres Friday (11/26) on PBS and should be available on the PBS app shortly thereafter.