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Léo Delibes. Carte de visite photograph by Fritz Luckhardt : Vienna, [c.1870].

Léo DELIBES: Coppélia

April 2020

COPPÉLIA premiered in 1870

Coppélia, ou La Fille aux Yeux d’Émail. Ballet in 2 acts and 3 scenes, premiered at Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra, Paris, 25 May 1870.

Scenario : Charles Nuitter
Music : Léo Délibes
Choreography : Arthur Saint-Léon
Scenery : Charles Antoine Cambon, Édouard Desplechin and Jean Baptiste Lavastre

Swanilda : Giuseppina Bozzacchi
Frantz : Eugénie Fiocre [travesti role]
Coppélius : François-Édouard Dauty
The Burgomaster : Edmond Cornet

The three ballets which Léo Delibes (1836-1891) composed for the Paris Opéra between 1866 and 1876 marked a turning point in this popular composer’s career. He had previously been known as a composer of opérettes, several of which had achieved conspicuous success from 1856 at Offenbach’s Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens.

La Source, or Naïla (1866) was a direct result of Delibes’s appointment as chorus master at the Opéra in 1864, and of the Director Émile Perrin’s quick perception of his outstanding musicianship.  This was in fact a shared commission, the outer themes being given to the established ballet composer Léon Minkus, but it was the Delibes contribution which received dominant critical acclaim and was no doubt partly responsible for keeping the work in repertory for ten years.  ‘The whole of the score could have been entrusted to the young composer’ wrote the critic of Le Ménestrel.

Planning for Coppélia, or La Fille aux Yeux d’Émail, began shortly afterwards, the scenerio being, like that for La Source, by Charles Nuitter, the Opéra’s archivist.  Based loosely on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story Der Sandmann (1816) and developed again in collaboration with the remarkable dancer, choreographer and virtuoso violinist Arthur  Saint-Léon (1821-1870), this took some three years to reach the stage.  However it then earned Delibes the most significant triumph of his career and together with the third ballet Sylvia, or La Nymphe de Diane (1876) established his major historical importance as founder of modern “symphonic” ballet music.

In developing Coppélia‘s leading role of Swanilda, Saint-Léon worked with the young company dancer Léontine Beaugrand, who was however considered by Perrin to be an insufficient public ‘draw’.  After a further rehearsal period with Adèle Grantsova, a star ballerina from St Petersburg who had appeared in the first revival of La Source but was now to reject what she considered too light a role, the management made another inspired decision.   Giuseppina Bozzacchi, a fifteen-year-old Italian currently studying in Paris, appeared to have many of the right qualities and after a year’s training was to more than justify their confidence.  In what was her stage debut her exquisite dancing and total identification with the part brought her as well as the ballet rave reviews.  (The Revue littéraire et artistique called her ‘A Taglioni of the future’; see below for some examples of English contemporary reporting.)  Swanilda’s fiancé, a travesti role, was danced by Eugénie Fiocre, who had taken one of the two female leads in La Source.  Incidentally the ballet was preceded on the first and subsequent nights by Weber’s opera Der Freischütz : 19th century audiences had little problem with four- hour programmes of music and stage spectacle.

Sadly the initial run was interrupted after 18 performances by a serious of tragedies.  Saint-Léon was present at the performance on 1 September but collapsed and died the following day.  Meanwhile the Franco-Prussian War had broken out on 19 July; it was to cause the closure of the theatre in early Autumn.  Then Bozzacchi succumbed to smallpox and on 23 November, her 17th birthday she herself died.  (Two days later Delibes played the organ at her funeral, incorporating melodies from Coppélia in an improvised Funeral March.  She was buried at Montmartre.)  When the ballet could be revived in October 1871 the role of Swanilda was at last to pass to Beaugrand.  She achieved her own triumph and continued to dance the part for many years, but on 29 October 1873 the Salle le Peletier burned down and caused a further interruption.  (Sylvia was the first important new work to be staged in the Palais Garnier, opened in 1875.)

For Delibes however the sequel was entirely positive.  After resigning his organ and choir-training employments in 1871 he was able to devote himself solely to composition.

The ballet had to wait until 1906 for its first UK performance (Empire Theatre, London, 14 May 1906 with Adeline Genée as Swanilda).  It entered the repertoire of the Vic-Wells Ballet (later Royal Ballet) at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 21 March 1933 based on choreography by L. I. Ivanov and with Lydia Lopokova (and in later performances Ninette de Valois) as Swanilda.  In this 150th anniversary year it has been seen at the Royal Opera House in De Valois’s 1954 production.

Der Freischütz and the ballet Coppélia were duly brought out at the opera on Wednesday evening, and the Emperor, Empress, their suite, and a crowd of notables honoured the performance, which had a great and deserved success, with their presence.  Mdlle. Bozacchi, the débutante, is a danseuse of great merit, and has created a perfect furore amongst our jeunes, and, I may add, our vieux crévés.  She is excessively pretty and very young – almost a child.  Let us hope she will not, like so many of our distinguished artistes, become une enfant gatée.
The Graphic, 4 June 1870.
Mdlle. Bozacchi, the star of the opera, deserves the appellation of the “Patti of the Ballet.”  She is of Italian parentage, and French by training – and, I may add, adoption – for the theatre-going public are wild about her childish graces, her pretty pouting ways, the feathery lightness of her flights in the air, the distinctness of her pirouettes, the beauty of her little glancing feet, and the brio of her pantomime.  She is 17 years old, and small, vigorous, and beautifully moulded.  If Mdlle. Bozacchi could grow half a foot and expand in proportion, she would afford a perfect type of a Romagna peasant.  Her features are most symmetrical, and her great, ardent black eyes contain enough of fire to consume in a moment her diminutive person.  I never saw anything so animated before, unless when playing the part of the automaton, everything dances belonging to this little danseuse.  Arms, eyes, ringlets – all are in motion.  When she came into the world a star danced in the sky, and under that star she was born.  Mlle. Bozacchi has an unusual fund of comic talent at her command, and the mobility of the Italian nature, which easily runs from a major to a minor key, and from tragedy to the confines of the burlesque.  The ballet of “Coppelia,” in which she made her début, and nightly charms subscribers to the Grand Opera, is well adapted to bring out her versatile talents. – Paris Letter.
The Manchester Evening News, 7 June 1870.
I may here mention a generous action of M. E. Perrin, Director of the Grand Opera.  Mdlle. Bozzacchi, the new danseuse who has created such a furore in Coppelia, was engaged for thirty months at the moderate salary of 500 francs a month.  M. Perrin, feeling that her merits exceeded her pay, tore up the agreement and drew out another engagement for five years on the most splendid conditions.
The Graphic, 9 July 1870.

We would like to pay tribute to the ballet historian Ivor Forbes Guest  DUniv MA FRAD (1920-2018) on the 100th anniversary of his birth, 14 April, 2020.  His exhaustive research into more than two centuries of ballet will always remain fundamental to any studies of the period.

The Ballet of the Second Empire 1858-1870, London, 1953 has, of course, guided us in the mounting of the present display.