Old-fashioned entertainment of the most seductive kind - Sylvia, Royal Ballet, review

Published
24/11/2017 by

Sylvia is a ballet that might never have made it into the modern age. Lured by Léo Delibes’s exuberant score from 1876, Frederick Ashton created his own version of this mythologically themed romance in 1952 (his second three-acter, after Cinderella), but was never satisfied with it. Over the decades, he chopped, changed and abridged it until, by his death in 1988, very little of the original remained. Not until 2003, for a revival to mark the following year’s centenary of Ashton’s birth, did Christopher Newton painstakingly reconstruct it from whatever slivers of verbal or visual evidence he could find, thereby forming the version we know today.

Can Sylvia, then, possibly be entirely “authentic”? Probably not. And, nor is its plot exactly modern or water-tight. The shamelessly orientalist Act II, for example, plays out in the “evil hunter” Orion’s slave- and concubine-filled island cave (remarkably similar to the second act of another fanciful love story that originally premiered in 19th-century Paris, Le Corsaire). It turns out that all the titular heroine has to do to escape her kidnapper’s clutches and return to her beloved shepherd Aminta is to give Orion a glass of or two of wine, wait for him to pass out, and slip away with Eros. (The divine intervention aside, surely any self-respecting evil hunter would handle his merlot better than that.)

Sylvia is, then, very gentle, far from hip entertainment – and, on Thursday’s opening night of this season’s revival, it was also a complete joy. Recreated from Christopher and Robin Ironside’s original designs, Peter Farmer’s sets are ravishing – Act I plays out in the dreamiest of arcadian glades, Act II is like a flying visit to Thailand as imagined by Henri Rousseau – and the Royal Opera House orchestra powered through that super score with gusto.

The biggest delight of this revival, however, is to see so much rich, detailed, full-bodied choreography performed so very well. As Sylvia, Marianela Nuñez sparkles her way through the tale. Admittedly, she’s a very different dancer from Fonteyn (for whom the role was created), and a die-hard Ashtonian might (justly) carp at the way she fudges some of the choreographer's more intricate footwork. But the beautiful Argentinian is so strong en pointe, so high and clean through the air, so proud in her bearing, that it would take a curmudgeon not to find her a delectable fit for the headstrong nymph.

She also, on Thursday, had the distinct advantage of a very fine shepherd. Aminta is curious role: physically demanding, and yet potentially downright drippy too. It needs a dancer of complete technical assurance, virility and nobility – and in Vadim Muntagirov, here making his debut, it has just that. From his deep, beautifully controlled opening arabesques, to the easy elevation in his solo variations, to the calm authority of his partnering, he made himself eminently worthy of Nuñez’s lustrous Sylvia. You believed in their mutual infatuation, and the closing, famous pas de deux blazed just as it should.

For the rest, Thiago Soares splendidly strutted his boo-hiss stuff as Orion, and it is impossible not to be touched by the warmth and complete professionalism that he and Nuñez (his real-life ex-wife) always bring to the Covent Garden stage in their frequent performances together. The odd eminently forgivable glitch aside, the corps were on form throughout, Romany Pajdak and Leticia Stock were very comely concubines, Valentino Zucchetti a finely etched Eros, Itzia Mendizabal an imperious Diana. As for Elizabeth Harrod and James Hay, they made absolutely super goats – hardly, on paper, the most promising of roles, but in fact, beautifully conceived by Ashton, and here given renderings of properly Ashtonian punctiliousness.

What lovely entertainment this is. And, for all the piece’s old-fashionedness, how nice it is to see a dance-filled story ballet driven by a strong and unviolated female character – today’s choreographers take note.