Is this ballet for you?
Go if/Skip if: Whether you should see Sylvia or not heavily depends on which version you are looking at. If you’re a “ballet newbie” we’d recommend you skip the Ashton version for the reasons explained in our recent review. We hope the notes below can help you decide which version might appeal to you the most. Maybe give one of them a try because Delibes’s music is gorgeous and the ballet is of historical importance.
Sylvia has an important role in the history of dance: it was the first ballet to be created at the Palais Garnier and the first to break with Romantic ballet conventions; if not choreographically, at least in the idea of a strong female character, a masculine huntress in contrast to the ethereal image of the fairy or Sylph. Sylvia represents an important change in the image of women in ballet.
The idea for a ballet of Sylvia ou La nymphe de Diane originally came from Jules Barbier and the Baron de Reinach who adapted Torquato Tasso’s pastoral play Aminta (about a shepherd who falls for a chaste nymph) for the Paris Opera in 1875. Louis Mérante premier maître de ballet at the time was chosen as choreographer and he worked closely with composer Léo Delibes in creating what would become one of the most remarkable ballet scores of all time. Sylvia premiered 14 June, 1876 to relatively muted reception. Its plot was considered very thin and subsequent productions, seeking to improve upon Mérante’s version – including Ivanov & Legat’s for the Mariinsky (1901) and a later one by Lifar for the Paris Opera (1941) – failed to make the ballet a great success.
Frederick Ashton rechoreographed Sylvia as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn in 1952, finally succeeding in popularising the ballet. Legend has it that Ashton’s interest was sparked around 1946 after Delibes had appeared to him in a dream and had given him the task of revitalising this underrated work. Recognising its weaknesses Ashton tweaked the libretto while retaining essentials. Choreographically Ashton kept a “classic feel” but with a contemporary touch. One can spot new and interesting techniques like the blending of mime and dance and more intricate, typical Ashton footwork (watch out for his signature “Fred Step” as the peasants push their carts in Act I).
The ballet’s centerpiece is Sylvia and Aminta’s challenging Pas de Deux in Act III, which contains the tricky pizzicato solo (see video examples below) designed to show off a ballerina at her technical best. Sylvia was first performed at The Royal Opera House in London 3 September, 1952 with Margot Fonteyn in the lead role and Michael Somes as Aminta. Despite initial critical acclaim, when dance critic Clive Barnes famously wrote of its lead “Fonteyn triumphant, Fonteyn bewildered, Fonteyn exotic, Fonteyn pathetic, Fonteyn in excelsis” and “the whole ballet is a garland presented to the ballerina by her choreographer”, Sylvia gradually became outmoded and Ashton finally reworked it into a one-act piece in 1967. However in 2004 Sylvia was reconstructed as a full length ballet by Christopher Newton for the Royal Ballet’s celebration of Ashton’s centenary. Since then it has been revived twice.
Act I: A Sacred Wood
Woodland creatures dance before the shrine of Eros but are interrupted by the arrival of Aminta, a shepherd in love with Sylvia. Arriving on the scene with her posse to celebrate the success of their hunt, Sylvia mocks the god of love. She discovers Aminta observing her and in fury turns her bow towards Eros. Aminta protects the god of love and is himself wounded by Sylvia’s arrow. Eros retaliates with his own bow shooting Sylvia who is now disoriented and leaves with her companions. Orion, a hunter, has also been watching the action and gloats over Aminta’s seemingly lifeless body. As Sylvia returns to mourn him we see the effect of Eros’s arrow: she has fallen desperately in love with the shepherd. She is captured by Orion and taken away to his island cave. Peasants grieve over Aminta’s figure until a cloaked Eros revives the shepherd. Eros reveals his true identity and informs Aminta of Orion’s actions.
Act II: Orion’s Island Cave
Captive in Orion’s hideout, Sylvia is bribed by him and his minions with jewels and wine but she continues to grieve over Aminta, nostalgically cherishing the arrow that pierced her heart. As Orion steals it from her, she realises the only way to escape is to get her captor drunk until he is unconscious. Sylvia feigns interest as they dance together and she keeps giving him wine. Orion eventually collapses, she retrieves her arrow and appeals to Eros for help. Eros arrives and shows her a vision of Aminta waiting for her at the temple of Diana where they now depart to.
Act III: The Sea Coast Near the Temple of Diana
Various deities dance at a festival in honour of the god Bacchus. Sylvia arrives with Eros. Reunited with Aminta she dances with him a sumptous Pas de Deux. Orion shows up seeking Sylvia and fights with Aminta; Sylvia barricades herself in Diana’s shrine and Orion attempts to follow. The goddess of the hunt is outraged and smites Orion. She also forbids the union of Aminta and Sylvia. Compassionate Eros shows Diana a vision of Endymion, the shepherd the goddess herself once loved. Diana has a change of heart and gives Aminta and Sylvia her blessing.
Very different to Ashton’s concept is John Neumeier’s Sylvia for the Paris Opera Ballet (June 1997), also staged by Neumeier’s own company Hamburg Ballett in December 1997 and currently in their repertory. In the early 20th century a more modern Sylvia, as proposed by Diaghilev and his collaborators Bakst and Benois for the Imperial Theatres, had failed to get off the ground. John Neumeier was the first choreographer to realise a modern version of the ballet. Subtitled Three Choreographic Poems on a Mythical Theme Neumeier’s Sylvia makes almost no use of Barbier’s plot. In order to effectively deal with the weaknesses and twee elements in the story, Neumeier devised it as a metaphor around the characters of Tasso’s play.
Neumeier’s Sylvia is a character at the crossroads between adolescence and womanhood. Torn between strength and vulnerability, she has difficulty finding a balance between aggressiveness and tenderness, between denial and self-abandon, and only succeeds in discovering true love with the awakening of her own sensuality. The choreographer says he did not necessarily try to match the narrative in the score to what was happening on stage so that “scenes, movements and emotional situations all maintain a sometimes surprising dialogue with the music”. His setting is also quite minimalist, Greek-chic. For that he collaborated with Greek painter Yannis Kokkos, whose blue tree standing before a green wall is designed to evoke Eluard’s metaphor “The World is as Blue as an Orange”.
Part I Diana’s Sacred Wood
The God of Love descends into the wood and takes on the appearance of Thyrsis a shepherd (NB: Tirsi is Aminta’s companion in Tasso’s play). Aminta, a real shepherd, enters the sacred wood secretly hoping to find Sylvia, Diana’s nymph. Diana and the nymph-huntresses appear in the wood to take a rest from hunting and to bathe. Sylvia and Aminta meet. Diana and the huntresses discover the tender exchanges between the shepherd and the nymph. Taken by surprise, Sylvia betrays Aminta.
Left alone, Diana remembers handsome Endymion, doomed to eternal sleep. At daybreak, the shepherds, their curiosity fired, enter the sacred wood and find Endymion asleep. Eros/Thyrsis is with them. Aminta’s heart is broken and he is obsessed by the vision of Sylvia. Even though Eros feels sorry for Aminta he takes on the form of handsome Orion in order to seduce Sylvia. She lets herself be led on by him.
Scene I: Love / Orion’s Party
As Sylvia matures she now gets in touch with her feminine side. Her sensuality aflame, Sylvia is overwhelmed by the memory of Diana and Aminta.
Scene II: Winter
Many years later, Aminta returns to the sacred wood. Sylvia too returns and they meet. Their love seems to live again for an instant. Diana observes them. She is tempted to separate them but Love disarms her. In the end it is life itself that steals Sylvia away from Aminta. As for Diana, she remains alone, the eternal huntress.
Other Notable Versions
David Bintley’s for Birmingham Royal Ballet (1993). This version has since been revised by Bintley himself (and you can watch his Sylvia video diaries here). It embraces comedy à la Marriage of Figaro and provides a more human story to assist plot development. The story is set in the fifties in Italy (land of Tasso) and the main characters are members of a rich but unhappy household. Amongst them the womaniser Count Guiccioli (Orion), the governess he tries to seduce (Sylvia), her love interest (Aminta), the lonely Contessa (Diana) and Eros who, disguised as a gardener, decides to restore order and happiness by casting his spell on the household, time-switching them into Tasso’s play. In this mythical world they encounter gods and goddesses, slave girls and even pirates.
Mark Morris’s for San Francisco Ballet (2004). The first full version of Sylvia produced by a US ballet company and in direct contrast to Neumeier’s more abstract production. Morris devised his own homage to Mérante in this full-length revisionist Sylvia which is set in 19th century style – yet with Morris’s own choreographic signatures – and features colorful sets and costumes.
Balanchine’s Sylvia Pas de Deux (1950). Before Ashton choreographed his now famous Sylvia Act III Pas de Deux, Balanchine had created his own 13-minute Pas de Deux complete with adagio, variations and coda for Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes.
- Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nao Sakuma in David Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
- Les Chasseresses from The Royal Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Sylvia [link]
- Marianela Nuñez as Sylvia and David Makhateli as Aminta in Act III pas de deux of Sylvia [link]
- Polina Semionova and David Hallberg perform the Act III solos (incl Sylvia’s pizzicato variation) of of Ashton’s Sylvia at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma [link]
- Darcey Bussell in the pizicatto variation [link]
- Manuel Legris as Aminta and Aurélie Dupont as Sylvia in the Paris Opera Ballet production of John Neumeier’s Sylvia [link]
- Aurélie Dupont as Sylvia and Manuel Legris as Aminta in the Pizzicato from John Neumeier’s Sylvia [link]
- Aurélie Dupont: as Sylvia becomes aware of her femininity she is is overwhelmed by the memory of Diana (Marie-Àgnes Gillot) and Aminta (Manuel Legris) [link]
- Martine Van Hamel and Patrick Bissel in Balanchine’s Sylvia pas de deux [link]
The most notable element of Sylvia is probably Léo Delibes’s sumptuous score. Born in Saint-Germain-du-Val in 1836, Delibes studied composition at the Paris conservatory under other famous ballet figures like Adolphe Adam (famous for the scores of Giselle and Le Corsaire).
Léo Delibes was initially an organist in the St. Pierre de Chaillot church in Paris. He then worked as an accompanist at the Theatre Lyrique. His first foray into ballet came as a result of a collaboration with Léon (Ludwig) Minkus in a series of divertissements for oriental-themed ballet La Source (1866). However Delibes only became well known after the success of his ballet Coppélia (1870). Coppélia revolutionised ballet music at it was the first score to provide descriptive tones and sophisticated leitmotifs to help advance the plot.
Sylvia, Delibes’s second ballet, is considered to be the best pre-Tchaikovsky dance music. Delibes worked closely with the choreographer Louis Mérante building the music in parallel with the dances. Mérante would often request changes to accommodate his choreography and Delibes would adapt the score accordingly. When Sylvia failed to create a stir in Paris in 1876, it was Delibes’s score which kept audiences interested in the ballet. Sylvia also heavily influenced composers like Debussy and Tchaikovsky, with the latter having famously said: “…what charm, what wealth of melody! It brought me to shame, for had I known of this music, I would have never written Swan Lake”.
The most famous extracts are Les Chasseresses (entrance of the huntresses) an energetic piece with echoes of Wagner – of whom Delibes was said to be a great admirer – and the pizzicati in the third movement. The score sets the mood for the various scenes, but also announces the action via its leitmotifs. There is a striking use of brass instruments and even a saxophone – so rarely employed at the time – which is central to several of the wind sections.
An essential iPod / Spotify list for Sylvia would include the following tracks:
4. Grand Pas des Chasseresses
6. Valse Lente
14. Chant Bacchique
15. Scène et danse de la Bacchante
17. Grand cortège de Bacchus
19. Danse Barcarolle
20. Variation dansée (Pizzicati)
24. Galop Générale
For the full listing of dances and scenes, see Wikipedia
Sylvia ou La Nymphe de Diane
Choreography: Louis Mérante, Libretto: Jules Barbier / Baron de Reinach
Music: Léo Delibes
Designs: Jules Chéret, with costumes by Lacoste
Original Cast: Rita Sangalli as Sylvia, Louis Mérante as Aminta
Premiere: 14 June 1876, Palais Garnier, Paris.
Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Léo Delibes
Designs: Christopher and Robin Ironside. For the 2004 revival: Peter Farmer
Original Cast: Margot Fonteyn as Sylvia, Michael Somes as Aminta, John Hart as Orion, Alexander Grant as Eros
Premiere: 3 September 1952, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.
Choreography: John Neumeier
Music: Léo Delibes
Designs: Yannis Kokkos
Original Cast: Aurélie Dupont as Sylvia, Manuel Legris as Aminta
Premiere: 30 June 1997, Palais Garnier, Paris.
Sources and Further Information
- Wikipedia Entry for Sylvia (ballet) [link]
- Hamburg Ballett Notes for Neumeier’s Sylvia [link]
- Ballet Met notes for Léo Delibes, composer [link]
- History of Art: A History of Classical Music – Léo Delibes [link]
- Wikipedia Entry on Léo Délibes [link]
- Royal Ballet Sylvia. Review by Graham Watts at Ballet.co. November, 2004 [link]
- Programme Notes for The Royal Ballet’s Sylvia.
- Dance Review: Sylvia, Birmingham Hippodrome, by Judith Mackrell. The Guardian, February, 2009 [link]
- Dance Review: Mark Morris’s Sylvia, by Michael Wade Simpson. San Francisco Gate, May 2004 [link]
- Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet by George Balanchine and Francis Mason. W.H. Allen, 1977. ISBN-10: 9999265111