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Delibes (1836-91) – Ballet Suite: “Sylvia”

The tradition of French ballet seems to be as old as the hills. The Académie Royale de Danse was founded as early as 1661, followed in 1713 by its Ballet School - which still flourishes today. Without any doubt, ballet is one of their national passions. Even in a serious opera, the French insist on their bit of ballet – as Wagner found out to his cost when he brought Tannhäuser to Paris! 

Léo Delibes’s career happily coincided with the “classical” ballet’s zenith. Coppélia (1870) rightly remains immensely popular. By any standard, it’s a supreme masterpiece of musical invention and concentration.. By comparison, the seemingly looser-limbed Sylvia (1876) is little known, except through this suite. However, that’s almost entirely because it languishes in Coppélia’s shadow. Bring Sylvia out into the light, and it shines: the music is vibrant and colourful, evocative and atmospheric. 

For a ballet, the plot is unusually convoluted: both the shepherd Aminta and the god Orion become besotted with one of Diana’s chaste nymphs, Sylvia, who accidentally kills Aminta when he tries to stop her loosing an arrow at Eros’s statue. Eros, not best pleased, pierces Sylvia with one of his arrows, leaving her enamoured with a corpse . . .eventually, the resurrected Aminta is united with Sylvia, Diana slays Orion, Diana and Eros settle their dispute, and everyone - except Orion - is happy (pending an Olympian internal investigation). 

Even that over-simplification suggests why Delibes adopted a symphonic approach, back then something of a radical departure. However, Sylvia has another, unique claim to fame. In 1901, a blazing row over a Maryinsky Theatre production of Sylvia led to its producer’s resignation. His name? Serge Diaghilev! Albeit indirectly, this “lowly” ballet triggered the biggest revolution in the history of ballet. 

1. The opening bars of the Prelude, a majestic march subsiding onto expectant horn calls and pastoral stirrings, blend beautifully into the ballet’s third number, Les Chasseresses, the volatile and vigorous first entry of Sylvia and her cohorts. 

2. In the succeeding Intermezzo, the huntresses take their ease. Sylvia, to the delicate and appropriately suspenseful strains of the Valse Lente, swings on the overhanging lianas, skimming her tootsies across the waters of the stream. 

3. Nowadays, the Pizzicati comes second only to the Dance of the Cygnets as the “Most Abused Bit of Ballet”. In Sylvia’s third and final act Eros, disguised as a pirate, bids one of his bevy of veiled slave-girls dance for the revived but bereft Aminta. Vacillating nervously between hesitancy and impulsiveness, the music elegantly suggests the girl’s identity. 

4. Marche and Cortège de Bacchus. The third act “prelude” is a divertissement, a cavalcade of pomp and merriment in celebration of the vintage festival. You could be forgiven for suspecting that Delibes was trying to top the Grand March of Verdi’s recent Aida. May the gods forgive me, but I’m tempted to believe he succeeded! 

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© Paul Serotsky
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