Review: Royal Ballet in Sylvia at Royal Opera House

Performance: 18 Jan - 31 Mar 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 22 January 2008

Sylvia has had a chequered history with the Royal Ballet. Originally conceived as a three-act vehicle for Margot Fonteyn in 1952, as only the second full-length work created by Frederick Ashton, it was progressively cut to two acts, then just one, until eventually only the final act pas de deux survived for the odd gala performance. After many years of neglect, Christopher Newton reassembled the original work – to huge and much deserved acclaim – for the Ashton Centenary in 2004.

The ballet is staged to a convoluted narrative about the rocky course of an affair between a humble Shepherd and one of the Goddess Diana’s nymphs, helped by Eros, the god of love, and thwarted by the hunter Orion, with his own evil intentions for the nymph. It involves death, resurrection, deception, kidnap and even a pair of sacrificial goats but – needless to say – it all comes good in the end. It also has the benefit of the most gloriously melodic score, by Delibes, which prompted a self-deprecating Tchaikovsky to declare that had he heard it before, he would never have composed Swan Lake. Even today, after hearing it hundreds of times, Delibes’ elegant themes seem far too modern to have been composed in the mid-1870s – his brilliant use of the saxophone through many key passages is redolent of an age that came a whole lifetime later.

In the company that essentially guards and maintains Ashton’s repertoire it is right and proper that this reconstructed work is now one of the jewels in the Royal Ballet’s crown. Although Darcey Bussell led the revival in 2004, I have to say that Zenaida Yanowsky seemed even then to be the definitive Sylvia, a pulsating role which is unquestionably enhanced by her powerful domination of the stage, coupling strength and beauty in equally intoxicating measures: the entrance of the nymphs to Delibes’ stirring march of the huntresses is one of the most exciting scenes in ballet and as Yanowsky soars towards the audience it can never have been more exhilarating. David Makhateli’s portrayal of her Shepherd, Aminta, was a solid and deliberately unremarkable performance; this ballet is all about Sylvia and his selfless partnering rightly allows Yanowsky to shine. The first night was also enhanced by a last-minute substitution in the role of Eros, which – with no disrespect for the original cast dancer – became the rightful property of Joshua Tuifua, who like Yanowsky has really made this role his own. He brings a winning cocktail of strength, elegance and mischievous charisma to Eros, one could say fitting the god of love like a glove! Gary Avis also produced yet another towering performance as the hunter, Orion. Both Tuifua and Avis act brilliantly, conveying the story through a glance or simple gesture that reaches right to the farthest corners of the theatre.

These successes apart, as an ensemble, this was not the best of evenings for the Royal Ballet, with some uncharacteristic, slippery errors in acts I and II but – like the story itself – it all came together for the glorious finale in Act III. Any residual tarnish on this rediscovered gem will be polished away through repeated performance as the production continues all the way through to the end of March. I recommend it – even if you don’t like ballet, just close your eyes and enjoy some of the best tunes ever written.

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