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Welcome revival of Sylvia starts Colón’s Ballet season

Isabella Boylston and Federico Fernández dance Delibes.
Isabella Boylston and Federico Fernández dance Delibes.
Isabella Boylston and Federico Fernández dance Delibes.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

Delibes’ piece is the first ballet to be performed at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 1876


For decades I longed for a chance to finally see at the Colón Léo Delibes’ Sylvia, for together with his Coppélia, he wrote — after Tchaikovsky’s three standards — the best ballet music of the Nineteenth Century. My desire was finally satisfied when the Colón presented two years ago Frederick Ashton’s choreography. Although Maximiliano Guerra was then at the helm of the Ballet, the choice had been his predecessor’s, Lidia Segni, but fortunately he respected it, and apparently he liked the results, for he programmed this year’s revival starting the Colón season, and this time it was Paloma Herrera, the new Directress, who approved, and so do I, for the presentation of 2015 had been first-rate and well worth being appreciated again.

The inspiration for this ballet was Torquato Tasso’s pastoral drama Aminta, written at Ferrara in 1573. Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say: it “transcends the convention of artificial rusticity with the sensuous, lyric inspiration of its picture of Arcadia. The tone is lyrical rather than dramatic.”

The full French title is Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane, story by Jules Barbier and the Baron of Reinach, choreography by Louis Mérante, music by Delibes, June 1876, Paris Opera: the first ballet to be performed at the Palais Garnier. The quality of the music was widely recognised but Mérante’s ballet steps were rather weak and the bucolic Arcadia seemed rather wan; for the public Coppélia (1870), equally attractive musically, had those intriguing Hoffmann characters that made it famous. And indeed, few choreographs turned their attention to Sylvia: the principal ones were Lev Ivanov and Pavel Gerdt (1901, Saint Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre), Serge Lifar (1941, Paris Opera), Frederick Ashton (1952, London’s Covent Garden) and John Neumeier’s innovative 1997 version for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Ashton was the great choreographer of British ballet and he created about a hundred works for the Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden. Anthony Russell-Roberts, his nephew, writes illuminating programme notes. Ashton created Sylvia for Margot Fonteyn and asked Christopher and Robin Ironside to imagine stage and costume designs faithful to the story but also to Tasso, and this is what we saw at the Colón, with added designs by Peter Farmer; here the lighting was by Mark Jonathan revised by Rubén Conde. Ashton°s idol was Marius Petipa and it shows: classicism prevails and certainly fits the Greek myth.

After 40 years Ashton’s choreography was restored both in London and at the American Ballet Theatre by Susan Jones, and she assured at the Colón the fidelity to it. There are those who may feel this Sylvia rather dated, but Ashton wanted to evoke the feeling of its Paris première back in 1876, and he did it with marvelous “métier” and conviction; I certainly prefer it to Neumeier’s contemporary version (there’s a DVD of it). If you want a great recording of the music, get that of Jean-Baptiste Mari with the Paris Opera Orchestra (1978).

This was Herrera’s initial test of her directing skills, and she passed it brilliantly: this was a beautiful show with talented and disciplined dancers. True, she had the reliable presence of Jones and she played safe by adding three experienced rehearsal helpers: Vagram Ambartsoumian, Martín Miranda and Néstor Asaff. She applied the same hard work and knowledge of style that she and Julio Bocca experienced during their many years at the American Ballet Theatre; those members of the corps de ballet that wanted to feel a stronger and more involved hand than that of Guerra were happy; others may have found Paloma too hard, but it’s the right road and they will have to comply.

But I do question the announced elimination of two interesting revivals planned by Guerra: Cranko’s “The taming of the shrew” and Petit’s “Notre Dame de Paris”. What she will offer in return is too much of a good thing, for we already will have Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty”: Swan Lake’ and ‘The Nutcracker‘ (though the latter will bring back Nureyev’s famous version), completing the Russian composer’s trilogy. She will scratch the International Gala but add two unspecified contemporary evenings.

Now back to Sylvia. There were seven performances (two more than planned by Guerra) and curiously the invited Isabella Boylston (début), from the American Ballet Theatre, wasn’t in the first (Nadia Muzyca, Maximiliano Iglesias) but in the second and third (with Federico Fernández); I chose the second. Olmedo and Nahuel Prozzi headed another cast.

Cuts

There are three acts, and in this performance they lasted 93 minutes. My recording goes on for 100, so there are cuts, which I deplore, for the Mari records aren’t quite complete either, so the cuts seem to be in the range of about 20 minutes.

The First Act happens in a sacred wood where naiads, dryads, sylvans and fauns dance before the statue of Eros. The shepherd Aminta interrups, and soon Sylvia and other huntresses spoof Eros. Aminta loves her, who irritated sends an arrow to Eros, intercepted by Amintas, who is hurt by it; retaliating, Eros sends amorous and harmless arrows to Sylvia, thus falling in love with Amintas. Enters the hunter Orion, who abducts Sylvia and flees. Comes a rustic cortege who tries to help Aminta; Eros, disguised as Sorcerer, heals him.

This 40-minute Act has three contrasting crowd scenes in which the corps de ballet showed a nice level of training. We get to know Sylvia’s fierce personality and after Eros’ arrows her change; Boylston impressed with the firmness of her technique. Amintas is always a sweet lover, and Fernández has the lithe tall body, the sensibility and style for the part. After long immobility, Eros the ‘statue‘ moves and saves Amintas; Nahuel Prozzi is a fine mime with a perfect body. Ten years ago, Alejandro Parente was an admirable danseur noble; now, older and stocky, he is right for a character part like the rough Orion.

In the short Second Act, “A cave in Orion’s island”, Orion tries to seduce Sylvia to no avail; she manages to get him drunk and with Eros’ help she boards a boat. In between there are humorous dances of two concubines (Georgina Giovannoni, Stephanie Kessel) and two slaves (Martín Vedia, Emiliano Falcone), done with gusto.

Act III is really a divertissement in front of Diana’s Temple in which intervene eight gods and goddesses, eight Muses, plus groups representing Spring and Summer, assistants to Sylvia and to Daiana, plus three Heralds, so there is a Bacchanale, a Barcarolle, a Gallop and a General Dance. The funny dance of two goats was enacted with much success by Emilia Peredo Aguirre and Jiva Velázquez. Boylston and Fernández proved their star quality in the Pas de Deux vanquishing the difficult Ashton steps. The fun is interrupted by Orion’s attempt to get Sylvia back and the temerity of entering Diana’s temple; she kills him and then decides that Sylvia can’t marry Amintas, but Eros makes Diana (the majestic Amalia Pérez Alzueta) remember that she loved Endymion and the goddess cedes. Final apotheosis.

Emmanuel Siffert got the Buenos Aires Philharmonic to play with conviction and dynamic range, with splendid jobs from the horns and trombones and beautiful solos by the concertino, the saxophone and the flute.

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