Created in 1952, Sylvia was the second full-length ballet created by British choreographer and founder of the Royal Ballet, Frederick Ashton (1904-1988). The production had since tumbled from the repertory, but in 2004 Christopher Newton rescued it from the archives for Ashton’s centenary. Originally conceived for his muse Margaret Fonteyn, the role of Sylvia remains one of ballet’s most challenging Principal roles. Sylvia celebrates some of Ashton’s most imaginative dance imagery and returns, this November, to the Royal Opera House for the first time since 2010 to mark its sixty-fifth anniversary.
Inspired by Greek mythology, the story of Sylvia is told in three acts. As a disciple of the Goddess Diana, the nymph Sylvia is sworn to chastity in her life as a huntress. As the creatures of the woodland dance in worship before the statue of Eros, Aminta, a shepherd, stumbles onto the ritual and falls helplessly in love with Sylvia. She works hard to dismiss his advances, that is, until a strange turn of events causes the God of Love to intervene.
Designed by Christopher and Robin Ironside, each act possesses a unique set. Carefully detailed, locations are arranged as if they were three-dimensional frescoes in the style of Michelangelo. Shaded from the sun by a canopy of leaves that resemble ostrich feathers, sprites gambol to the sound of Leo Delibes’ infamous score. A brilliant espirit du corps is made brighter still through a vivid use of costume, which works well with the scenery to create a wash of Renaissance romanticism.
Dressed in a burnt orange toga, Aminta (Vadim Muntagirov) is fluid in his expression of movement and against Sylvia (Marianela Nuñez), who brings a palpable fragility to her performance, his actions are soft and he mirrors her delicacy exactly.However, it is the jealous hunter Orion (Thiago Soares) that brings an undeniable presence to the stage. Decorated with jewels and colourful satin, he brings out something urgent in Sylvia’s character. There is a constant tension between the two that is entirely captivating and together they create an effortless spectacle as he takes her prisoner in his cave of red and gold.
Flashes of humour and a hypnotic use of tambourines tease more intense and heartfelt moments within the telling of this story. The production is well acted and is balanced in its emotional and physical communication, which together with live orchestral accompaniment creates the most poetic execution. There are times when the landscape becomes muddied with an excessive use of props, which busies group sequences to the point of distraction. Nevertheless, the choreography reads like precious bone china – the spell of which could be broken with the slightest of missteps. Ultimately, Sylvia is as the smile worn by Nuñez in her beautiful retelling of the role – nothing short of dazzling.
Sylvia is playing at the Royal Opera House until December 16 2017.
Photo: Tristram Kenton