★★★★ SYLVIA, ROYAL BALLET Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov sparkle as arcadian lovers
On paper, the appeal of a Sylvia revival is questionable. If even the choreographer (Frederick Ashton) wasn't sure his 1952 original was worth saving for posterity, do we really want to watch a 2004 reconstruction posthumously pieced together from rehearsal tapes? Especially given that, with its arcadian setting, it totters delicately on the dividing line between delightfully arch and camp as the Queen Mother's curtains? Happily I can report, after last night's performance by the Royal Ballet, that this revival comes down on the right side of the line, and is absolutely worth your time.
Sylvia's appeal is enormously boosted by its Delibes score, which is richly colourful and melodic: a delight to the ears all the more potent for being much less frequently heard than many far inferior ballet scores. Hamburg Ballet's conductor Paul Hewett gave a thoroughly engaging account of it with the ROH orchestra last night, not afraid to lean in to the full emotional and dramatic range of the music, but astute enough to hold back from bombast and melodrama. No matter how daft the action on stage is at any given moment, the ever-fresh, stylish merriment of the score redeems it.
The other hugely redeeming factor in last night's performance was the central pairing of Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov, whose now-established partnership is distinguished by its radiant quality: individually already two cheerful dancers, they bring out smiles and tenderness in each other to an extraordinary degree. This tenderness abundantly animated the slightly implausible love affair between the virginal nymph Sylvia and the modest shepherd Aminta: from Muntagirov's first entrances his ardent adoration was more than clear, and Nuñez's lovelorn repentance after shooting him in the heart in the first act (I know, I know, but just go with it) is genuinely believable. Their wedding pas de deux (pictured above right) is so joyful, you practically need sunglasses to watch it. I could wish for just the slightest hint more of pliancy from Nuñez, who like many senior ballerinas shows off her technical command with a crispness sometimes bordering on the clinical. Natalia Osipova's debut in the role, next week, is one to watch for a different mood. Muntagirov's big solo, however, set to a swoony waltz, is a pure delight of big, crisp jumps; I simply defy anyone not to crack a smile watching this magnificent dancer so ebulliently exercising his considerable talents.
With this ardently romantic spirit giving life to the story, one can smile on as the plot and the choreography loop around in swirls of baroque extravangance, complete with naiads, dryads, sylvans, fauns and peasants, oh my... Set and costumes (originally by Christopher and Robin Ironside; updated by Peter Farmer) continually verge on the hopelessly camp, and tip over where the villain of the piece, Orion (Thiago Soares), is concerned. He is presented as a glowering, bearded Turk with an enormous spear (wink, wink) and – compounding orientalism with crimes against fashion – lilac velour harem pants. Poor Soares can do little with this hammy part but grin and bear it.
But there are also a great many very lovely touches indeed: the goddess Diana is shown a scene from her own past which is presented in the centre of a great Poussin-like mass of gilded clouds in the sky; Eros shows Sylvia a vision, across a hazy azure sea, of Aminta posing soulfully on the steps of a perfect little round temple; Eros (Valentino Zuchetti) looks just like a classical statue in his costume of white body paint and skimpy fig leaf – a reposefully beautiful look that only heightens the comedy of his appearance in disguise, wearing a big round hat and sneaking around with cartoonishly picked-up feet. Attendants trip gaily in and out with bows and/or agricultural props (little lambkins with dangling legs are recognisable cousins of Fille's farmyard cutesiness).
The choreography is unmistakeably Ashton in its preocupation with fluttery petit allegro and fussy changes of direction. On Nuñez, Muntagirov (pictured above left), Zuchetti and a handful of other dancers (Itziar Mendizabal as Diana, James Hay as a goat, David Yudes as a slave, Fumi Kaneko as Terpsichore) the Ashton style is a balletomane's nerdy delight of frou-frou technicality, and makes an engaging contrast to Russian grandiosity we see in Sylvia's dotty, 19th century ballet relations like Le Corsaire. But unfortunately the choreography gravely challenged many supporting dancers, who not only struggle to convey the Asthon style in port de bras and épaulement (some, like Tierney Heap, don't seem to know where to begin), but look permanently at risk of dropping out altogether. This is a real shame, for not only does it mar an otherwise thoroughly engaging production, but it is rather a poor show if even the Royal Ballet, Ashton's home company, cannot train its dancers to execute his choreography properly.
Focus not on the naiads, dryads, sylvans, fauns, muses et al, then, but on a charming love story, an arcadian setting, and that utterly lovely score. Gritty realism it ain't, but it sure is a delicious evening at the theatre.
- The Royal Ballet perform Sylvia at the Royal Opera House to 16 December
- Read more dance articles on theartsdesk