the Ballet
Ballet Encyclopedia

or The Girl with Enamel Eyes Coppélia

A story of sneakery, imaginary magic, and drifting love, Coppélia is one of the earliest ballets, if not the earliest, that features a doll coming to live as an important part of the story. It was partly because of Coppélia's success that other ballets, such as the Nutcracker and Petrushka, have dolls that come to life in them. The story is adapted from Der Sandmann by E.T.A. Hoffman which is quite a dark story, however, for the ballet the story was made to be quite fun.

The main characters are Franz, his fiancée Swanhilda, and Dr. Coppélius. Dr. Coppélius is, as we find out later in the ballet, is obsessed with making life-size mechanical dolls and has one in particular that he wants to come to life.

Swanhilda was first danced by Guiseppina Boznacci after the premier a critic said "The title of child prodigy should be devised for her, had it not been abused in so many other cases; although scarcely fifteen years old she is already a very skillful dancer, what is still better in our opinion, she is a graceful and witty actress; add to that she bids fair to have the prettiest features in the world. If she fulfills all per promises, she will be a power in per profession." Unfortunately, less than two months after the opening the Franco-Prussian war broke out and the opera closed. The following November Guiseppina Boznacchi caught smallpox and died on her seventeenth birthday.

Act I, Scene I:

In a small town on the borders of Galicia, (the Polish one, not the Spanish one), the houses are all bright and cheerful except for one, Dr. Coppélius's house.

Swanhilda looks out of the top window of her house before coming down to the square. She sees a girl reading in Coppélius's upstairs window. The townspeople thing this is Coppélius's daughter but she never comes out of the house so they have never met her.

Upon hearing footsteps Swanhilda hides. Franz arrives in the square and blows a kiss to the girl in the window! The girl seems to respond but then sits down again to read some more. Livid, Swanhilda scolds Franz, who denies he has any interest in Coppélia, (the girl in the window), however, Swanhilda refuses to believe him and says that she no longer loves him.

As Swanhilda and Franz finish arguing the square fills with villagers and the Burgermeister, (their name for the mayor), arrives with a new town bell. There's going to be a party tomorrow to raise the bell where many couples will be married.

When the townspeople depart Swanhilda finds a sheaf of wheat and shakes it. You see, if the wheat rattles it means that the person you are in love with loves you back. The wheat doesn't rattle for Swanhilda so she gives to to Franz. Franz also says he hears nothing so Swanhilda throws the wheat on the ground and says that it is over between her and Franz. Franz and Swanhilda go their separate ways.

As night falls and the square is empty Dr. Coppélius heads out, but on his way is hassled by a bunch of teenagers and drops his key without noticing.

Later on Swanhilda and her friends find the key and decide to sneak in to his house to explore. They barely get inside when Franz arrives in the square with a ladder. At the end of the act Franz starts climbing the ladder to Coppélius's upstairs window and Coppélius himself returns looking for his key. He chases Franz away.

Act II Scene II:

The girls arrive in Coppélius's workshop and in the dark they start exploring, finding different life-size mechanical dolls in various states of construction. Swanhilda opens the curtain near the window to find Coppélia sitting in her chair reading. Swanhilda bows and says "Hi" but Coppélia doesn't respond. How rude! Swanhilda touches Coppélia's arm and it's cold, then puts her hand over Coppélia's heart and it's not beating! Coppélia is just a life-size doll! Swanhilda and the girls find this hilarious. Just wait until she tells Franz! No longer afraid of being discovered the girls start all of the dolls moving. Just then Coppélius arrives, furious, and chases all the girls away. Swanhilda is sneaky though and hides behind the curtain with Coppélia.

Once the girls are gone Coppélius notices Franz starting to climb the ladder again. Instead of chasing him away he does something strange. He hides. As soon as Franz makes it through the window Coppélius grabs him and demands to know why he is breaking into his house. Franz tells Coppélius of his love for Coppélia so Coppélius invites him stay for a glass of wine, however, Coppélius doesn't drink himself, he just keeps filling Franz's glass again and again and again. Soon Franz falls asleep.

Coppélius brings Coppélia out from behind the curtain and casts spell to transfer the life force from Franz to Coppélia. It looks like the spell is working! Coppélia is starting to move around, first very mechanically, then more and more like a real person. Suddenly she smiles at Coppélius and begins to dance! Then Coppélia starts to be mean. You see, Coppélia isn't Coppélia at all; she is Swanhilda dressed as Coppélia. Swanhilda tries to drink all the wine and kicks the magic book. Dr. Coppélius gets angry and stops her; then he gives her a tambourine and she does a Spanish dance, then she does a Scottish jig. As the jig finishes Franz wakes up and tries to figure out what is going on. Coppélius grabs Swanhilda, puts her back into Coppélia's chair, and wheels her behind the curtain then sends Franz out by the window. As Franz leaves Coppélius hears a noise behind the curtain. When he pulls it back he sees the real Coppélia doll sitting in the chair not moving and while Coppélius's back is turned Swanhilda sneaks away.

Coppélius notices Swanhilda and Franz, who now has figured out what happened, arm in arm in the square below and realizes he has been tricked. He faints wishing the Coppélia would come back to life.

In many versions of Coppélia instead of sneaking out Swanhilda, still dressed as Coppélia, shows Coppélius the undressed real Coppélia doll and the curtain goes down on him clutching the doll crying.

Act II. Scene III:

On the lawn in front of the Lord of the Manor's house we can see the new town bell, now hung, decorated with ribbons. The couples that are getting married are presented to the Lord, and Franz and Swanhilda have fallen back in love and join the couples getting married.

But all is not joyful. Dr. Coppélius pushes his way through the crowd and demands to be paid for the damage Swanhilda did to his dolls the night before. Swanhilda offers to pay him out of her dowry but the Lord of the Manor forbids it and pays Coppélius himself. Then he starts the party. There are many dances celebrating the time of day, the famous Dance of the Hours, and all ends happily.