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‘Coppélia’ a confection best not overthought

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Pascal Molat is excellent as Dr. Coppelius in San Francisco Ballet’s “Coppélia.” (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

With plenty of tulle, glitter and living dolls, San Francisco Ballet’s happy production of “Coppélia” hides a dark core.

Léo Delibes’ lively score, choreography by George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova (restaged by Judith Fugate), costumes and sets by Roberta Guidi di Bagno and lighting by Randall G. Chiarelli conspire to make the ballet a pastel romp through a mythical eastern European town called Galicia, where French is spoken, ethnic fashions run the gamut from eastern to western, and townsfolk gather to celebrate “peace, “prayer,” “spinning,” “discord” and “war.”

The story is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, which is a good thing, for a streak of cruelty runs through it. Butterflies are caught and pinned. The hero, Franz, is enamored of a life-sized doll. The heroine, his sweetheart Swanhilda, is jealous of said doll. And Dr. Coppelius thinks of the doll as his daughter (the eponymous Coppélia). The plot is advanced by mild elder abuse and vandalism.

But it’s all in good fun.

San Francisco Ballet boasts some of the country’s best dancers, and it is a joy to watch the women’s crisp, crystalline pointe work as they hop and fly at high speed as Swanhilda’s Friends.

The Villager’s mazurka in the first act does include authentic folk steps, but the choreography is more remote and oblique than the sweeping music might warrant. This viewer longed for more stamping, clapping, heel-clicking, and grand processionals.

On Wednesday’s performance at the War Memorial Opera House, Maria Kochetkova’s Swanhilda was high-spirited, girlish and impulsive, executed to perfection. Gennadi Nedvigin was a mischievous Franz, flirting with Swanhilda while mooning for the doll Coppélia. Nedvigin is a glorious jumper, and showed his skills admirably in the first and third acts.

Pascal Molat was wonderful as Dr. Coppelius. He embodied the character completely, and his gestures were as eloquent as the spoken word, from his hands and feet to his face. His duet with Kochetkova in the second act was the highlight of the show.

The third act celebrates Swanhilda and Franz’s nuptials, as well as multiple marriages of the Villagers within Galicia, and new church bells.

The Waltz of the Golden Hours, featuring Lauren Strongin and a chorus of very young ballet dancers in pink tutus, was charming. The young dancers performed the elaborate choreography well.

Soloists performing the divertissements — Sasha De Sola (Peace), Jahna Frantziskonis (Prayer) and Koto Ishihara (Spinner) — delivered beautifully.

The Jesterettes (Isabella DeVivo, Ellen Rose Hummel, Norika Matsuyama and Julia Rowe) performed a snappy quartet.

For Discord and War, the dancers were game in rather cartoonish Greco-Roman costumes. The main pair, Jennifer Stahl and Hansuke Yamamoto, was stunning even while wielding spears and wearing crested helmets.

The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra did more than justice to Delibes’ score, moving through rollicking passages to the delicate workings of the doll dances and the tenderness of young love.

Even if the story has its dark elements, the overall effect was humor and love.

San Francisco Ballet Program 4
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. March 11, 2 and 8 p.m. March 12, 2 and 7 p.m. March 13
Tickets: $30 to $255
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

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