BWW Reviews: SYLVIA at American Ballet Theatre
To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure if I liked Frederick Ashton's Sylvia at the Metropolitan Opera House on Wednesday evening, June 26, or not. It had lots of things in its favor, but where was the spark? What's special about this ballet, and how did it get from Paris 1876 to New York City 2013? Is there something that eludes me? I decided to do a little excavating on my own.
Sylvia's journey has been bumpy. Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane, as it was originally titled, was the first ballet to be presented at the newly constructed Opera Garnier, with choreography by Louis Mérante, the premier maître de ballet at the Paris Opera. Rehearsals for the ballet began with only the first third of the music intact. Throughout the rehearsal period, the score was under constant revision by Delibes, with input from Mérante and Rita Sangalli, who danced the leading roles of Sylvia and Aminta. Mérante was a demanding, provoking taskmaster who liked to bully Delibes to constantly change the music to accommodate his choreography. Delibes, unperturbed, was able to make changes quickly. Besides, he was a famous composer, so he did as he pleased.
When Sylvia premièred on Wednesday, June 14, 1876, it did not meet with critical praise, except for the music. Tchaikovsky said that it was "....the first ballet, where the music constitutes not only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony. It put me to shame. Had I known that music, I would not have written Swan Lake." I think it's just the opposite. Yes, the music is refined, aristocratic and elegant, but not very dramatic, the very thing that plagues the ballet to this day. Passages that are beautiful to listen to provide no action or impetus for dance. You might as well put on a CD and let your imagination run wild, since the music in a theatrical setting becomes lackluster.
Sylvia continued to beguile, or trouble, choreographers. A production in St. Petersburg in a staging that was to be supervised by Diaghilev, no less, did not materialize, due to differences he had with the director of the Imperial Theatres, Prince Volkonsky. Probably the most noted Russian production was the one choreographed by Lev Ivanov in 1902, who changed the title from Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane to simply Sylvia.
Anna Pavlova included many of the extracts from the 1902 production on her world tours. In 1911, a shortened version with choreography by an M. Wilhelm, or a Fred Ferren-the writer, whoever it was, wasn't too clear on this subject-was presented at London's Empire Theatre with Lydia Kyasht. The London Times wrote, "The movement is delightfully varied and the music with it...it all makes up a ballet of peculiar vitality and charm, with a just a taste, too, of a pleasant old fashion, when ballet, and even burlesque, were bound to have a pagan god or two in them...this is ballet music of the best kind' tuneful, dramatic, full of color and contrast, yet nowhere glaring or commonplace." I beg to differ.
Sylvia continued in different version, but it wasn't until Frederick Ashton choreographed a new production for the Royal Ballet, then called the Sadler's Wells at Covent Garden, in 1952 that the ballet came into misty prominence. The review in the London Times is ambiguous. It conveys cautious admiration for the Sylvia, Margot Fonteyn, and the third act divertissements, but otherwise its tone is one of mild admiration, tinged with many reservations.
The ballet was in and out of the repertoire over the next 25 years. Ashton even made a one act version of the ballet in 1967. But even this was received with reservations. As John Percival, dance critic for the London Times wrote, "Since the long version had some delightful music by Delibes and dances by Ashton, but weighed down by dramatic and choreographic dead wood, one sees the point of trying to prune it." Sylvia was dropped until the The Royal Ballet revived the work in its three act version for the Ashton centenary, again to wooly criticism. But this time audiences embraced the ballet. It was this version that ABT acquired a number of years ago, and the one which I saw and am reviewing.