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.
With all due respect, I find Sylvia interesting in parts, but dull in the overall. A friend of mine said it's well constructed, and I certainly agree with her. Ashton has choreographed some wonderful dances: the entrance of Sylvia and her nymphs to music that seems to herald the second coming of Brunhilde, and the enchanting third act divertissements, which boost the ballet from the longeurs of the second act. Wisely, ABT has now linked the second and third acts together, which happily segues from the dull to the interesting and mind awakening.
Although the second act is the most troublesome of the ballet, the other acts, while offering pleasure, do not hold one's interest. I can't blame it on the story. Sylvia, a nymph, meets Aminta, a shepherd, who falls in love with her immediately. But Sylvia is outraged and takes her bow and shoots it at a statue Eros, god of love, but it strikes Aminta instead, killing him on the spot. Then the statue of Eros comes to life and shoots an arrow at Sylvia, which arouses her immediate love for Aminta. Then the evil Orion abducts her to a mysterious island, but Sylvia, smart nymph, plies him with drink, and then, with the help of Eros, ships off to her beloved Aminta, who has been brought back to life with a secret potion of Eros. All ends happily as Diana, the goddess of chastity, blesses their union.
This all sounds silly, but with exemplary music such as Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, it would overcome the plot. Delibes may have been inspired by the story of Coppélia, but here the saga of Sylvia eluded him. The music for Sylvia's and Aminta's pas de deux and the divertissements are both lovely and exciting, but the rest drifts off into a sleepy world of blandness, which is exactly what the second act does not need. There is nothing to do but wait until Sylvia souses Orion and gets the hell out of there. With such insipid music, it probably was difficult for Ashton to create any excitement, although he does try. But without music that conveys the drama and passion of Sylvia's plight, it is heavy going.
The cast I saw on Wednesday night was what I would call, beyond adequacy. I have read many critics say that different casts can overcome a ballet's deficiencies, but I have always found that most problems lie with the ballet. Sometimes a dancer can surmount technical hurdles, but a ballet is built upon a story, an idea or a theme. If any of these can't be realized, the ballet won't be successful. If dance and music are not a fit, they fail. Saying this, I was impressed by Palomoa Herrera in the title role, but, to me, she seemed physically taxed by the time she began dancing the famous pizzicato waltz. JarEd Matthews was bland, but I think that is already written into the role, no matter who dances it. Herrera and Matthews seemed physically and intellectually well suited to each other, and I would welcome the opportunity to see them again in other parts in the future. Sascha Rude sky as Orion was hammy, but you can't do very much with a one-dimensional, villainous role. AaRon Scott as Eros and Leann Underwood also gave performances that fit in well with the overall concept of the ballet.
There are now other Sylvias. John Neumeier and Mark Morris have created their own versions, each one interesting, but neither exciting. Probably the best Sylvia I have ever seen is the Sylvia Pas de Deux that Balanchine choreographed. In 12 minutes he conveys the romance, passion and exuberance that Sylvia should exude, but never does, for the very reason that it can't be as originally composed and conceived by Delibes. Take a look at it on You Tube with Martine van Hamel and Patrick Bissel. I think you'll agree that it's the best Sylvia out there,
Photo: Gene Schiavone