Coppélia is one of the most frequently performed and well-loved comic ballets. It was first choreographed at the end of the Romantic era and is considered to be a precursor to the “Classical era” (think Petipa) which then followed.
As George Balanchine put it, “Just as Giselle is ballet’s great tragedy, so Coppélia is its great comedy.” The ballet is an obvious deviation from Romantic ballets, which featured ethereal figures like sylphs and wilis, long tulle dresses for costumes (later known as Romantic tutus), and tragic endings. In contrast, Coppélia featured human characters (that is, apart from Dr. Coppélius’s dolls), and ended with the central characters, Swanilda and Franz, in blissful matrimony.
Dr. Coppélius is an eccentric toymaker. He has built a life-sized doll, Coppélia, and daydreams of her coming to life. Franz, a young villager betrothed to Swanilda, is unaware that Coppélia, who sits at Dr. Coppélius’ window, is only a doll and finds himself attracted to her beauty.
In the village square, celebrations are underway as the burgomaster presents a new bell to mark the following day’s harvest festival, when Franz and Swanilda will tie the knot. The couple bicker and quarrel, but Swanilda shakes an ear of corn to test Franz’s faithfulness, and the couple make up by the evening. Following a run-in with some mischievous youths on his way out, Dr. Coppélius drops the key to his house. Swanilda and her girlfriends pick it up and decide to venture in to meet Coppélia.
Entering Dr. Coppélius’s house, Swanilda and her friends find out that Coppélia is nothing but one of the mysterious toymaker’s creations. Dr. Coppélius soon returns and drives out all the intruders, but Swanilda remains trapped. She sees Franz climb in through the window, hoping to meet Coppélia too. But he is intercepted by Dr. Coppélius and is made to drink till he passes out.
Dr Coppélius takes the opportunity to cast a spell, seeking to give life to Coppélia by transferring Franz’s life force to the doll. He is overjoyed when she comes to life, not knowing that Swanilda – who has been following all his actions – has taken her place. Franz regains his consciousness, and soon all is revealed. Swanilda forgives Franz and they run out, leaving the dismayed Dr. Coppélius alone with his toys.
The villagers gather to celebrate the harvest, as well as the wedding of Swanilda and Franz. Dr. Coppélius is upset and bitter, and threatens to take revenge for the intrusion to his home, but he is pacified by the burgomaster who gives him a purse of gold. The festivities continue into the night, with the “Dance of the Hours” and the wedding Pas de Deux.