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About the Change

Royal Ballet


The Jinx and eventual rehabilitation of 'Sylvia' and some views on the Royal Ballet's restaged production of Sir Frederick Ashton

November 2004
London, Covent Graden

by Graham Watts

© John Ross

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Sylvia Discussion
(Open for at least 6 months)

Performances reviewed:
4, 5 and 9 November 2004

Poor Sylvia has been jinxed for much of her very long life.  Since her story invokes the displeasure of more than one God, perhaps there is some superhuman reason for this ill fortune?

Sub-titled ‘La Nymphe de Diane’, the ballet was premiered at the Paris Opera on 14 June 1876 with choreography by Louis Mérante, who danced the role of Aminta with Rita Sangalli in the title role.  ‘Swan Lake’ was to make its debut some nine months later, but Delibes’ rich score for ‘Sylvia’ led Tchaikovsky to declare that ‘Swan Lake’ was ‘poor stuff in comparison’.  However, despite this musical advantage, the Mérante version was short-lived.  On the other hand, we can now safely say that Tchaikovsky’s self-doubt was certainly unjustified! 

‘Sylvia’ also cast a shadow across Diaghilev’s career.  The ballet was directly responsible for his downfall at the Imperial Theatre: the event which prompted his decision to leave Russia. 

When Prince Volkonsky was appointed as the Director of the Imperial Theatre he engaged Diaghilev, in 1899, as his ‘official in charge of extraordinary missions’ with a particular brief to reform and modernise.  Diaghilev had written an article entitled ‘Leo Delibes’ Ballets’ which was severely critical  of the Imperial Theatre management for the way in which ‘Coppélia’, ‘Sylvia’ and ‘La Source’ had been produced.  In relation to ‘Sylvia’, he wrote:

‘…the whole management clubbed together a year ago to spoil it and make it a hopeless mess….anybody that knows Delibes realises the position which is his due in the world of music, choreography and the plastic arts’.

This regard for Delibes led Diaghilev to decide that reform should start by righting this wrong through a new production of ‘Sylvia’ but his plans threw the whole Imperial bureaucracy into chaos.  The forces for conservatism, described by the uncompromising Diaghilev as  ‘grand dukes, femmes fatales and ageing ministers’ submitted no fewer than fourteen requests to the Tsar to have him removed.  When these had no effect, his many enemies collectively refused to have anything to do with the new production.  Faced with the prospect of this mass boycott, the well-intentioned, but ultimately spineless, Volkonsky cancelled the arrangements for the revival.  Diaghilev insisted it should go ahead and was therefore relieved of his duties. 

Soon after, Volkonsky was himself to fall foul of the wrath of ‘Sylvia’ when he was forced to resign after a further dispute.   Any hope that Diaghilev may have had for reinstatement were dashed when the key post of Director fell into the hands of his avowed enemy, Teliakovsky.

Diaghilev gave up the theatre for a year after this experience, which he was to describe in these terms: 

‘For two whole months St Petersburg could talk of nothing else.  The result was that after my dismissal the director of the Imperial Theatres was boycotted… to the consternation of the whole Russian bureaucracy a week after my fall the Emperor appointed me to a post in his Exchequer…but I left Russia shortly afterwards…’ 

The jinx was not yet fulfilled.  Lev Ivanov undertook to choreograph the postponed production of ‘Sylvia’, collaborating with Pavel Gerdt, but he died four days’ before its first performance, which took place on 15 December 1901.  This interpretation of ‘Sylvia’ fared only marginally better than the original version.  It is perhaps only significant for its relevance in confirming the newfound ascendancy of Preobrajenska (on whom the role of Sylvia was created) in her intense rivalry with the Marynsky’s prima ballerina assoluta, Kschessinska.

Other choreographers have restored ‘Sylvia’ with little lasting success: Wilhelm at the Liverpool Empire in 1911; Léo Staats at the Paris Opera in 1919; Serge Lifar, also for the Paris Opera, in 1941, revived by Lycette Darsonval (Lifar’s Sylvia) in 1979; and Balanchine’s Act III pas de deux for Tallchief and Magallanes in 1950.  More recently, Bintley revisited the work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1993, followed by Neumeier’s ‘Three choreographic poems on a mythical theme’ for the Paris Opera in 1997.


Zenaida Yanowsky as Sylvia in Ashton's Sylvia
© John Ross

The lack of longevity for any version of ‘Sylvia’ led the balletomane writer, George Borodin, to declare in 1946 that, all too often, broadcasts on the BBC ‘…are made up of ballet music long since dead, like the 19th century romantic music of Delibes in Sylvia’.

Shortly after this was written, Delibes appeared to Ashton in a dream and, with a kiss, implored the choreographer to save his ballet.   Ashton honoured the subconscious commitment by deciding that Delibes’ gorgeous melodies and diverse themes should no longer remain dead to British ballet.  ‘Sylvia’ became his second full-evening work when it premiered at the Royal Opera House on 3 September 1952.  Recognising that the flimsy libretto of earlier versions might have contributed to their lack of staying power he made several revisions to the story whilst remaining essentially faithful to the original narrative of Torquato Tasso’s pastoral, ‘Aminta’.

Ashton’s ‘Sylvia’ slotted neatly into the front end of a particularly rich decade of his career where the focus was on reconstructing new versions of classic ballets from earlier scores and scenarios: starting with Daphnis and Chloe (1951), Romeo & Juliet (1955), the libretto of Ondine (1958), La Fille Mal Gardée (1960) through to Les Deux Pigeons (1961).  In these big ballets, Ashton rose to the challenge of providing spectacle and developing profound characterisation, humour and pathos, whilst also accommodating the less inspired passages in a long score.  In 1955, Arnold Haskell wrote:

‘ … he accepts the challenge in Sylvia of coping with period music without descending to pastiche; and never once does the movement he provides strike us as modern or as ‘old world’.

Ashton’s own simple description of the narrative was ‘boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god’.  This strap line identifies four characters but this is a ballet entirely carried by the ballerina who plays the girl and Ashton’s ‘Sylvia’ has come to be identified with just one ballerina, famously described by Clive Barnes in this superlative: 

‘The part has everything for Fonteyn.  It exploits her imperiousness, her tenderness, her pathos, her womanliness, her bravura. It gives us Fonteyn triumphant, Fonteyn bewildered, Fonteyn exotic, Fonteyn pathetic, Fonteyn in excelsis. The range of her dancing is unequalled, the heart-splitting significance she can give to a simple movement unsurpassed.  The whole ballet is like a garland presented to the ballerina by her choreographer.’ 

Those who saw Fonteyn as Sylvia speak of the way in which she played with the music, particularly in the choreography for the Pizzicati divertissement.  Certainly, today’s dancers of the title role have been routinely compared with the compactness and fleet footwork of Fonteyn.  

There have been many references to the difficulties faced by the taller ballerinas, namely Darcey Bussell and Zenaida Yanowsky, in the present revival of Ashton’s ‘Sylvia’.  These have emphasised the context of being able to deal with a role that had been specifically made to capitalise on the uniquely compact skills of Fonteyn.   However, it is interesting to recall that the longer-limbed Beryl Grey (the third-cast ‘Sylvia’ in the 1952 performances) was also very well regarded in the role.  This may have been partly due to Fonteyn being taken seriously ill a few weeks into the first series of performances.   Beryl Grey was to become particularly associated with ‘Sylvia’, taking excerpts of the role on tour to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico in 1957 and performing the pizzicato variation for the last of her four public galas in Peking in February 1964.

Her biographer, David Gillard wrote:  

‘Ashton changed the choreography slightly for her so that it was more suited to a taller dancer, but it was by no means a thorough reworking of a piece that had been originally tailored for the more compact needs of Fonteyn.  But Grey’s third-cast appearance was well received by the majority of the critics’

‘The Times’ wrote of Grey’s performance:

‘Her physical stature makes her an impressive heroine, her technique an efficient and athletic one, her personality a gracious, musical, attractive figure.’

These sentiments were echoed in ‘The Spectator’, which described her as  ‘an entirely forceful Sylvia’.

Notwithstanding its achievement in restoring Delibes’ bouncy music to life, the contemporary praise for his choreography, and the memorable performances of Fonteyn and Grey, even the Ashton ‘Sylvia’ was not immune from the ballet’s jinx and did not remain in the repertory.  It was compressed into a one-Act version in 1967 and survived, in all, for around 80 performances over these fifteen years but, eventually, it went the way of all others and was lost: or, in the great scheme of things, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it was temporarily misplaced.

Christopher Newton, Peter Farmer and their many colleagues have now painstakingly recreated Ashton’s ‘Sylvia’ in a process that is probably not dissimilar to the recreation of a great Stately Home destroyed by fire.    Every minute detail has been lovingly restored.      But, do the performances justify all this effort?   Was it a ballet worth saving?  

Recalling the contemporary descriptions of Fonteyn and Grey in the title role and thinking of today’s dancers, over fifty years on, I was struck by how well these descriptions could apply in equal measure to the stunning first performance as ‘Sylvia’ by Zenaida Yanowsky.  Hers was an entirely triumphant debut in the role: impressive as the statuesque huntress, imperious in her initial disdain for the lovelorn Aminta but ultimately poignant in her distress over his body.  In a recent interview she talked about the difficulties of the choreography, particularly in Act III, but she conquered the complex requirements with complete command and the most sensitive musicality.  She covered every element of the role – bravado, pathos, humour and so much more – with the confident certainty of a ballerina in total command of her diverse skills.


Zenaida Yanowsky as Sylvia and Martin Harvey as Eros
© John Ross

Neither Darcey Bussell nor Marianela Nuñez quite reached these heights although both gave strong and sensitive performances.  Bussell was very confident as the archetypical, Amazonian huntress of the first Act, blazing onto the stage with fiery grand jetés to the stirring fanfare of ‘Les Chasserresses’.  She was, however, less convincing in the transition - brought on by the piercing of Eros’ arrow - to ‘Sylvia’, the girlish lover and she struggled with the pizzicato variation of Act III, appearing to momentarily drift behind the music.  Nevertheless, she and Jonathan Cope were still magnificent in the final duet.  The odd quibble aside, it was a courageous performance in a very difficult role, especially for a ballerina who has been away from the stage for so long.  She certainly deserved the extra curtain call with the house lights up.

Marianela Nuñez started less confidently.  Her innate graciousness inhibits belief in her as Diana’s huntress, a votary whose sole purpose is to kill.  It is simply impossible for Marianela’s sheer niceness to encompass the implied violence of the role – note how Zenaida flings the horn away, high into the air with no care or concern, whereas Marianela tosses it gently to the side.  Marianela’s ‘Sylvia’ only comes to life in her gentle, poignant solo over the dead body of Aminta, where her own unique strengths find their peak.  I enjoyed her Act II performance less than those of either Zenaida or Darcey but she closely matched Zenaida’s excellence in taking ownership of the Act III choreography.

Where Darcey convinced as the haughty Amazon and Marianela excelled as the girl experiencing the first awakening of love, Zenaida comfortably achieved both shades of this complex role.  She did so by resisting the trap of making either element so intense as to raise the question of how such a magnificent and intrepid huntress could possibly turn into the shy, love-struck girl. 

Jonathan Cope colours every classical role from the same palette.  His wistful nobility was slightly off-target for the besotted shepherd of the opening sequences, whereas David Makhateli’s judgement was more appropriate in a gently pathetic early reading of Aminta.  Both Cope and Makhateli were sensitive partners and tackled the virtuoso Act I solo and Act III variation with considerable style.  After a lot of criticism during his first year with the Company, this was a bright start to the new season for Makhateli. 


Jonathan Cope as Aminta
© John Ross

Accompanying Nuñez as a replacement for Iñaki Urlezaga, Rupert Pennefather made an impressive debut in a leading role.  He is easily forgiven for a slightly nervous start and his confidence grew as the performance developed.  For those who are unfamiliar with Pennefather (a First Artist who joined the Company from the Royal Ballet School in 1999) just think of a young Sean Bean as ‘Sharpe’ in tights and this will definitely conjure up the right image!   

Gary Avis made a welcome return to the company after a five year absence.  No-one does ballet villains better and Avis was a strong and compelling Orion in the second cast, as Thiago Soares had been on the opening night.  Viacheslav Samodurov was less menacing as the robber Khan.  Whilst one could believe him capable of abducting Marianela’s less tough ‘Sylvia’, he would have got his backside kicked by the meaner huntress of either Zenaida or Darcey.

Martin Harvey was perfect as Eros in the first and second casts, wittily caressing the gentle humour of the solo leading to his revival of Aminta.   Joshua Tuifua was a less imposing but sweeter god of love.   Iohna Loots is compiling a CV that looks like a menagerie.  Having already danced the parts of a cat and a rabbit, she has started this season as a dog (‘A Wedding Bouquet’) and now a sacrificial goat! 

The brief but very dramatic appearance of the Goddess Diana at the dénouement of the ballet was competently handled by, respectively, Mara Galeazzi (reprising her scariest Myrtha stare), Gillian Revie (also pretty scary) and Laura Morera (just scary enough).  The overall weakness of ‘Sylvia’ in the repertory of a large company is simply demonstrated by the comparative waste of great dancers in such a small cameo.

Delibes’ score was superbly delivered by the orchestra under Robert Gibbs’ leadership and conducted by Graham Bond.  It presents some wonderful gifts to the choreographer and Ashton uses the ‘Danses des Ethiopiens’ in the second Act and the ‘pas des esclaves’ in Act III to create some memorably witty movement.  The flat, two dimensional poses of the goats parody Nijinsky’s Faun whilst the grandeur of the pas de deux, complete with variations and divertissements, evokes Petipa with ease.

This brilliant reconstruction of a masterpiece, performed so outstandingly at every level,  is the greatest tribute to Ashton that the Royal Ballet could have paid at the centenary of its Founder Choreographer.  It is an anniversary offering that lovingly cherishes and restores the essence of the original choreography and the brilliant mythological designs of the Ironside brothers so excellently recreated by Peter Farmer. 

Christopher Newton deserves some kind of medal for giving this treasure back to the nation and for ensuring that Delibes’ ballet was saved, thus honouring the pact that was made following Ashton’s dream of the dead composer.   At the grand old age of 128, Sylvia might at last be free of her jinx.  

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