"Sylvia", Vienna State Ballet, Nov. 10th, 2018
When it comes to „Sylvia“ (originally „Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane“), it seems that the world of ballet is divided in two: one that loves it and another that dislikes it intensely. Unfortunately I belong to the second party. Nevertheless this review is NOT about my personal tastes but about a new elaboration of it by Manuel Legris based mainly on Louis Mérante's choreography from 1876, notable for its mythological Arcadian, pastoral setting and, above all, its remarkable score by Delibes.
When „Sylvia“ premiered in 1876, at the Palais Garnier, it went largely unnoticed. In fact, the first seven productions of Sylvia were not commercially successful, a fact that everyone tends to forget nowadays. It was the 1952 english revival, new elaborated and choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, that popularized the ballet. I had honestly hoped that this present production of the Vienna State Ballet would have been based upon Ashton's work. His is a much more contemporary reading, while retaining a classic feel. It „feels“ more modernized. In the 1952 choreography, „Sylvia“ incorporated new and interesting techniques such as the blending of mime and dance and more intricate footwork, as are typical of Ashton's works. Ashton's success set the stage for the 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2009 productions, all of which were based on his 1952 choreography (Interesting is the fact - that many tend to „oversee“ - that this choreography features some difficult pas de deux and a spectacular one in the third act, which constitutes the climax of the ballet – and that was Ashton's idea... even if nowadays used on productions that are based solely upon Mérante's work)
The ballerina Anna Pavlova occasionally included extracts from the 1902 russian production on her world tours in a revised staging. In attendance for one of her appearances in Peru was a young Frederick Ashton (who had been born and raised in Ecuador), whose memories of Pavlova's performance would inspire him to create his own renowned version for the ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1952.
Sylvia features a mythical setting and a late nineteenth-century score, both of which give it an old-fashioned feel. In many ways, however, it was quite revolutionary for its time. The score was and still is recognized for its greatness. And that makes it all bearable: Delibes' work is certainly the best appreciated aspect of the ballet for its innovation, creativity, and maturity (A very interesting and quite revolutionary, choice of Delibes was his pronounced use of brass and wind instruments).
The prelude to the first act and the pizzicati in the third are the significantly more famous sections of this notable score. The latter, the more famous, is a well-known example of pizzicato style. However this section is, according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "traditionally played in a halting, hesitant style that appears to have been NO PART of Delibes's conception."
While some consider Tschaikovsky's „Swan Lake“ the best ballet music of the above mentioned era (and, thinking of the boring, repetitious never-ending musical passages of „Lake“), I disagree extremely with this fact - Tchaikovsky himself preferred „Sylvia“ to his own work, calling his own masterpiece "poor stuff in comparison". Tchaikovsky once said "I was ashamed. If I had known this music early then, of course, I would not have written „Swan Lake".
But „back“ to the present production: Choreographically, Mérante was ahead of its time. His choreography was considered quite rebellious for casting ballerinas as masculine huntresses. Despite such innovations, the original choreography for „Sylvia“ (and all subsequent productions based on the original choreography) is still very much of late Romantic-era ballet. With extreme touches of „Bravura“, technique speaking for itself and not as a help to the dramaturgy. I honestly think that this is what bothers me (and bores me) most in „Sylvia“.
Nevertheless I was quite curious, in fact quite worried, about the reception „Sylvia“ would get in Vienna. Viennese audiences do not „know it“ - and this ballet seems to be mostly a part of the Royal Opera House and the Paris Opera repertoires (not to mention some few, successful productions in N.Y.). But I should not have worried about that: the reception was warm and full of excitement. The public was more than delighted. You see, there is this old saying „You can take the girl out of a town, but you cannot take the town out of the girl“. Vienna's audiences got exactly what they love most: a „classic“ sumptuous production. That is the way audiences are here. That is a fact!
So much work involved in a huge production like that. Not only for the dancers but for the whole house: Lightning, Orchestra, Choreography, Repetition, Costume and Set Departments... My biggest and deepest respect to all involved.
So many roles - perfect vehicles for such a company that consists of so many soloists and half-soloists . There is no time and space to mention every single one of them. Here just a few:
Ketevan Papava’s “Diana” has the certain poise that only an experienced dancer could give to this ambiguous role. Always a pleasure to see her on stage.
The „faun“, marvelously played by a „naughty“ Dumitru Taran: impressive grand-jetés a la seconde!
Natascha Mair, lovely as ever but perhaps not in one of her best days. This can happen to anyone. We and the audience know that she is more than a very gifted dancer.
Ioanna Avraam and Alice Firenze, strong and pin-pointed as the two huntresses. But these are the kind of roles that „don't make a bookmark in the book of your memory“. Such a shame because they were really beautifully on shape and rehearsed.
Eros, played by Mihail Sonovschi, was presented as a statue of beauty. Clean cut. During his first entrances I thought „Is that a non-dancing role?“. But that was soon clarified. Mr. Sosnovschi's appeal to younger girls must be be once and for all mentioned: two late teen-agers sitting very next to me were more that dazzled by his (tiny) „costume“!
Davide Dato, back to the stage on top shape gave us a beautiful portrait of Orion. A technically challenging choreography „custom made“ for him, for this gifted dancer. Definitely one of the best dancers from the Opera House! The only point that bothered a bit was that his costume, hairdo looks etc. reminded me too strongly of his made up in „Le Corsaire“ - also the work of Miss Spinatelli.
Dennys Cherevychko's Aminta was filled with such a brilliancy – and lightness: at the same time the charming (shepherd boy) and strong (man in love). Mr. Cherevychko at the top of his career and brilliant technique.
Nikisha Fogo stole the show and gave a wonderful, delicate portrait of a choreographic part that is so underlined with technique, Bravura and „Show and Circus“ (to put it all too clearly and honestly here). She simply stole the heart of the audience. In an interview with her, some months ago, I compared her to „Sally B.“ (Charlie Brown's younger sister), especially for her determination, stamina, strenght... I could not have been more right. The audience was ecstatic with her. Miss Fogo was promoted, during bows, just after the performance to a principal Soloist if the Vienna State Ballet. Yes, an „Etoíle“. My Congratulations for this well deserved turn and step in your career, dear Nikisha! It was very special to witness the care and pride that Monsieur Legris and Monsieur Meyer dedicated to this very touching moment.
Luisa Spinatelli’s costumes and sets are too overloaded. Nearly claustrophobical. In times like these, while Opera and Theatre settings are becoming more “cleaner”, “simpler” (this is, no question, a trend of our times), I do not understand that a ballet may resemble so much a version of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” - quite out of its time in its “apoteotic”, “sumptuous”, “luxurious” ways. This fact is quite disturbing because it „adds“ more to the choreography – and the choreography by itself tends to be overloaded – many people on stage, many actions happening at the same time, difficult, sometimes ungrateful steps for the Soloists and Corps-de-Ballet that can be only cherished by an audience of „Ballet conoisseurs“.
No words are enough to describe Kevin Rhodes' musical qualities, empathy toward the dancers, brilliant interpretation and unique commitment. It is always an honour to sit near the Orchestra pit to observe him closer – even at the risk of catching myself distracted by the symbiosis of talents and feelings, emotions, delicacies (and the list goes on) that come out of that pit. Marvelous, enchanting, fascinating moments (and fields of joy) those that Mr. Rhodes leads us through.
Throughout the years, it must be said, there were quite a few „new readings“ of „Sylvia“, notably Balanchine's 12 minute version (?!?!) for Maria Tallchieff, John Neumeier's production for Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris (which did not use the original Libretto and therefore had not much to do with the original) and a two-act version at the ABT for Paloma Herrera and Angel Corella...
I see this present, new production, thanks to the engagement of brilliant Dancer, Director & Choreographer Manuel Legris, as a precious TRIBUTE to the „Encyclopedia of Ballet“ (in fact his second full-evening work) - Mr. Legris himself being the living proof that such an Encyclopedia exists. As long as Artists like those mentioned above keep giving us productions like that, evenings like that, music quality like that, Artistry like that... well... then I would say that our world is „fine“!