Sylvia is not one of Frederick Ashton’s best known or most performed works. Before this weekend, I’d only ever seen the production fronted by Darcey Bussell on screen (filmed back in 2005). It has been in repertoire at the Royal Opera House since then, but I’ve never had the chance to see it until this month.
The ballet tells the story of Sylvia, a nymph and huntress sworn to chastity, who falls in love with Aminta, a shepherd. Several obstacles are placed in their path – including Aminta’s fatal arrow wound and Sylvia’s kidnapping by Orion – but ultimately love and the gods conquer all.
It was brilliant to see Lauren Cuthbertson, one of my favourite principals, in a full-length narrative piece (it’s been a while) and I cannot imagine someone more perfectly fitted for the role. The strong, elegant lines of her arabesques and jetés – made even more striking by her endless limbs – softens with the choreography as Sylvia falls in love, and she looks confident and comfortable throughout.
Reece Clarke, a recent promotion to Soloist, is an incredibly tall and muscular Aminta who pairs well with Cuthbertson. Their Act 3 pas de deux – the highlight of the ballet – is delightful and the dramatic opening, in which Aminta enters with Sylvia held over his head like a religious idol, is rock solid. In spite of Clarke’s build, he makes hardly a sound landing the large jumps in his solo.
Delibes’ score is another star in this ballet, rich with horns and lively pizzicato strings, befitting the world it portrays.
The ballet is very action-driven as a whole, and with classical mythology as its inspiration, it is full of strange twists, deus ex machina devices and a host of colourful – but often superfluous – characters. Act 3 is reminiscent of the wedding in The Sleeping Beauty, but unlike the fairytale guests of the latter who perform their own divertissements, pairings such as Persephone and Pluto are introduced but do hardly anything. Whereas Sylvia’s band of huntresses – so dynamic and empowered in their first appearance – barely go on pointe in the final act. Perhaps Ashton was originally choreographing for an audience who would have had a classical education at school, and appreciated references to mythological stories (however slight), but personally I feel it needs a deity cull and more variations from established characters.
This brings me on to my second issue with Sylvia as a work. It’s often touted as feminist, with its strong female lead and her companions wielding bows and carrying deer carcasses on stage, but after a short time this all unravels. Sylvia is undone when she is shot by Eros – a male god – and falls in love against her will. She is resourceful in the face of Orion, tricking him into drinking himself unconscious, but she still requires a male rescuer. On the other hand, the final obstacle to her union with Aminta is the goddess Diana, whose brief cameo is full of stormy wrath.
Whatever your view, there’s plenty to love about this lesser known classic, but I do think it would benefit from a new, less frilly production design and half the number of characters!