Sylvia (ballet)

Rita Sangalli as Sylvia in the 1876 production

Sylvia, originally Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane, is a full-length ballet in two or three acts, first choreographed by Louis Mérante to music by Léo Delibes in 1876. Sylvia is a typical classical ballet in many respects, yet it has many interesting features that make it unique. Sylvia is notable for its mythological Arcadian setting, creative choreographies, expansive sets and, above all, its remarkable score.

The ballet's origins are in Tasso's 1573 play Aminta, which provides the basic plot of Delibes' work. Jules Barbier and Baron de Reinach[1] adapted this for the Paris Opera.[2][3] The piano arrangement was composed in 1876 and the orchestral suite was done in 1880.[4]

When Sylvia premiered on Wednesday, June 14, 1876, at the Palais Garnier, it went largely unnoticed. In fact, the first seven productions of Sylvia were not commercially successful. It was the 1952 revival, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, that popularized the ballet. Ashton's success set the stage for the 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2009 productions, all of which were based on his 1952 choreography.



In 1875, the Paris Opera chose Barbier and Reinach's libretto for Sylvia. Mérante was also chosen to choreograph Sylvia based primarily on his extensive experience in the field and position as the premier maître de ballet at Paris Opera. All other reasonable choreographers were at the time unavailable.[5]

Rehearsals for Sylvia begin on August 15, 1875, with only the first third of the music intact. Throughout the rehearsal period the score was under constant revision by Delibes, often with the "aid" of Mérante and Rita Sangalli who would each dance a lead rôle. This development of the score was a grueling process of many revisions and restarts. Mérante was especially demanding of Delibes and would regularly request changes to the score to accommodate his choreography, yet Léo Delibes made the changes requested of him in a timely fashion.[5]

1876: Paris Opera Ballet; Mérante

Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane, as it was originally titled, was the first ballet to be shown at the newly constructed Opera Garnier and it did so with extravagance. This approach proved at times excessive. The lavish scenery of Jules Chéret was poorly lit, detracting from the quality of the production. The costumes designed by Lacoste were well appreciated, however. In the end it was Delibes' score that saved the production. Without such highly esteemed music, the ballet would have soon drifted into obscurity.[citation needed]

At the age of 27, Rita Sangalli was the principal ballerina at the Opéra, and thus the obvious choice to star as Sylvia. Sangalli was described as having a "superb physique",[citation needed] but not spectacular dancing skills. Nonetheless, she was the only ballerina taught the rôle, and on one occasion the ballet had to be temporarily closed when she injured herself.[5]

Olga Preobrajenska in the title rôle of Sylvia. St. Petersburg, 1901
Sergei Legat in the rôle of the shepherd Aminta in Sylvia. This photograph shows the moment where he is struck by Sylvia's arrow. St. Petersburg, 1901.

1901: The Imperial Ballet; Ivanov and Gerdt

Among the first important versions of Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane following the original production of 1876 was a production presented by the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia on 15 December [O.S. 2 December] 1901.[6] The ballet had been performed in Russia before: in 1886 the ballerina Antonietta Dell'Era (noted for creating the rôle of the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker in 1892) performed excerpts from the ballet at the Arcadia Theatre of St. Petersburg, and in 1892 the ballerina Carlotta Brianza (noted creator of the rôle of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty in 1890) performed the full-length work at the Fantasia Theatre in Moscow.[6]

The Mariinsky Theatre's production was originally planned for the 1900–1901 season in a staging supervised by Sergei Diaghilev, with décors and costumes designed by Alexandre Benois and choreography by the brothers Sergei and Nikolai Legat.[6] But differences between Diaghilev and the director of the Imperial Theatres, Prince Volkonsky, led to the project's cancellation as well as the end of Diaghilev's association with the Imperial Theatres, an event that led Diaghilev to eventually form the original Ballets Russes in 1909.[6] Nevertheless, the ballet was re-scheduled for the 1901–1902 season in a version mounted by the Imperial Theatre's Deuxieme Maître de Ballet Lev Ivanov, whose death in December 1901 caused the direction to hand the project over to the noted Premier danseur Pavel Gerdt.[6] Perhaps Ivanov's most lasting contribution to the ballet's history was the change of title from Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane to simply Sylvia.[6]

The cast included the great Prima ballerina Olga Preobrajenska in the title rôle and the danseur Sergei Legat as the shepherd Aminta. Also included among the ballet's secondary characters was a young Agrippina Vaganova as a nymph of the Goddess Diana, and Pavel Gerdt in the rôle of Orion.[7]

Although the dances of the ballerina Preobrajenska were a great success, the first performance was not. The editor-publisher of the Saint Petersburg Gazette, Sergei Khudekov, himself a ballet expert and noted for co-authoring the librettos for several ballets staged at the Mariinsky,[8] was one of several critics who complained that the Ivanov/Gerdt choreography was of poor quality, and that the libretto was extremely slight.[6] Another element that contributed to the ballet's failure was the fact that the direction did not allow any new décors to be created, and instead sets were utilized from works that were no longer being performed.[6] After only five performances Sylvia was taken out of the company's repertory.[6] In spite of this, excerpts from the ballet were included in gala events.[9]

The ballerina Anna Pavlova occasionally included many of these extracts from the 1902 production on her world tours in a revised staging by balletmaster Ivan Clustine.[9] In attendance for one of her London appearances was a young Frederick Ashton, whose memories of Pavlova's performance would inspire him to create his own renowned version for the ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1952.[10]

1952: The Royal Ballet; Ashton

Margot Fonteyn kneeling before Julia Farron (Diana) in the 1952 production

Ashton re-choreographed Sylvia in 1952. As the story goes, what sparked Ashton's interest in Sylvia was a dream he had in 1946. In the dream, Delibes charged Ashton with revitalizing his under-appreciated ballet and Ashton, upon waking, took up the task.[11] The master choreographed Sylvia with a strong emphasis on the lead rôle; in fact he designed the entire ballet as a tribute to Margot Fonteyn, a dancer with whom he worked. Clive Barnes, an American drama critic, noted, "the whole ballet is a garland presented to the ballerina by her choreographer."[11][12] This "garland" was produced by The Royal Ballet and it was first performed at The Royal Opera House in London on September 3, 1952. Ashton also tweaked Barbier's libretto for the premiere to maximize interest in the story.[citation needed]

Margot Fonteyn played the lead rôle of Sylvia when this version opened. Aminta was played by Michael Somes, Orion by John Hart[13] and Eros by Alexander Grant.[citation needed]

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