The curtain rises on the square of a small European town several hundred years ago. A lovely young girl, Coppélia, is seen sitting on a balcony reading a book as Swanilda enters. Swanilda looks up at the girl, tries to attract her attention, but receives no reply. Franz, Swanilda’s lover, comes into the Square and blows a kiss to the beautiful Coppélia. She ignores him too, and continues unconcerned with her book. However, Swanilda has seen these attentions of her lover to another pretty girl, and Franz is a very busy young man assuring Swanilda that he is not faithless and his affections are hers alone. Still jealous, Swanilda refuses to believe him and runs away as a group of young people interrupts their quarrel.
The Burgomaster enters to announce that at a celebration the following day, the Lord of the Manor will present dowries to all couples who wish to marry. Asked if she will marry Franz, the pouting Swanilda puts a sheaf of corn to her ear. Thus, according to old custom, the corn will tell her if her lover is faithful or not. Sadly, she says the ear is silent. The other couples, however, are delighted at the Burgomaster’s good news and dance until night falls when they must leave for home.
Dr. Coppélius comes out, locks his door, and is immediately swirled away by a boisterous band of revelers. In the excitement, he drops the key to his shop. Swanilda and her friends appear, and, finding the key, they are filled with curiosity about the strange Doctor and enter his shop. Dr. Coppelius returns, sees his door open and darts in. Franz enters carrying a ladder that he uses to climb on to Coppélia’s balcony.
The curtain rises on the dimly‑lit interior of Dr. Coppélius’ shop ‑‑ a room full of life‑like, life‑size dolls. Swanilda pokes her head into an alcove to discover Coppélia. Someone jars a Chinese doll who dances until its clockwork runs down. The amazed young intruders then wind up all the dolls who dance as the friends watch, enchanted. Suddenly, a furious Dr. Coppélius enters and all of the culprits flee, except for Swanilda who runs into the alcove where Coppélia is kept. At the same time, Dr. Coppélius apprehends the faithless Franz entering by the window. Franz pleads his love for the beautiful Coppélia. Dr. Coppélius pretends to listen with interest while he entices Franz with several well‑doctored drinks. When the unsuspecting Franz passes out, Dr. Coppélius brings what he thinks is his fabulous doll Coppélia from her alcove. However, it is Swanilda who, overhearing Franz’s declaration of love for Coppélia, has changed places with the doll. The Doctor makes some magical gestures over Swanilda as she awkwardly rises to dance. The deluded Dr. Coppélius believes his puppet has come to life.
Swanilda dances on and on, creating havoc in the room and upsetting all the Doctor’s work. Franz, who has just revived, dashes out of the room chased by Dr. Coppélius. Eluding the Doctor, Franz returns to watch the proceedings with glee until, finally, he and Swanilda run out leaving the shop in a shambles. Dr. Coppélius returns to discover the figure of Coppélia lying in her chair, divested of clothes, and realizes that he has been deceived.
The curtain rises on the final act which is again set in the village square. Franz and Swanilda, now reconciled, approach the Burgomaster to receive their dowries and be married.
Dr. Coppélius storms in, accusing the lovers of destroying his life’s work. Swanilda, realizing the justness of his claim, offers him her dowry, but instead the Burgomaster gives Dr. Coppélius a bag of gold and sends him off. The townspeople then participate in the fete that unites Swanilda and Franz in a happy marriage.
At the age of 33, Delibes was commissioned by the Paris Opera to write his two large‑scale ballets, Coppélia and Sylvia. Coppélia is based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann – the same tale that sparked Offenbach’s brilliant “Doll Act” in his opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. Coppélia met with immediate success on its completion in 1870 and has been held a charming favorite by succeeding ballet‑lovers both young and old.