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Leo DELIBES (1836-1891)
Sylvia - ballet in three acts (1876)
Opéra National de Paris,
Orchestra of Paris National Opera/Paul Connelly
rec. Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille, France, March 2005
plus interviews with Director/Choreographer: John Neumeier and Dance Director: Brigitte Lefèvre
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Sylvia was Delibes’ third ballet (Naïla and Coppélia came earlier) and marked a distinct advance in the quality of the ballet music of the time. The French nation’s love for the ballet was enhanced by their native composer and specifically by this work. It would also influence Tchaikovsky’s style as was evident a year later when Swan Lake was completed.

Leo Delibes studied under Adam in Paris and although now principally remembered for his ballets and his opera, Lakmé, it should be remembered that he spent time writing a number of operettas that have been unfairly neglected and forgotten.

The full score of Sylvia is extended at the end of Act III with a Pas de Deux taken from La Source that in turn may have originated in the ballet, Naïla (1867).

Sylvia is a mythological story involving the interaction of a huntsman, Sylvia, with the hero of the ballet, a shepherd, Aminta. The goddess, Diana, and Eros lend their aid to free Sylvia from the attentions of Orion. The second act of the plot is a difficult one to mime out in ballet: Eros has to correct Diana’s scorn at the love between a mortal and a spirit (Sylvia) by reminding Diana of her earlier seduction of Endymion. I got completely lost in following the stage action for this part of the plot. The choreography, here by John Neumeier, nevertheless tells the story fairly well with much athleticism and fresh interpretation. The group work is at times inspired and there is good variation in the material. Sometimes solo character mimes are reminiscent of those robotic street entertainers we come across whilst visiting tourist spots. The dancing throughout is first class with the men and women’s chorus often adding an extra dimension. The male spirits, bare-chested with white jogging pants, looking familiarly like a Bourne production, and female spirits in flowing long dresses wash in imaginary water.

Diana’s reputation as an expert archer is indicated by an ingenious device in the Prologue. Four hunter-archers fire their arrows at a target board with fairly good aim - on cue of certain orchestral chords. When Diana fires her arrow it squarely hits the bull’s eye: the message is clear. There are times when I find that the energy of visual presentation does not always complement the energy and emotions expressed by the score. This is most evident when Sylvia’s company of hunters dance to the rousing and powerful music of the Chasseresses (No. 3). Opportunities are lost within this scene where frozen positions are sometimes held while the cheery music continues to bounce along. Again, the Cortège de Bacchus of Act III has its fanfares matching a non-synchronized waiters’ dance - with no Bacchus in sight. One wonders what Freddy Ashton might have made of these interpretations. The extended parting of Sylvia and Aminta, provided by additional Source music works as it gives a slower and more focused finale on which to finish.

The production at the Paris Opéra is not traditionally staged. The modern approach used has both positive and negative sides. I can only rarely accept that romantic classical music is ideally complemented by the modern minimalist staging favoured by contemporary western designers. Four stylized trees, bright blue, standing on an eau-de-nil floor are set against a neutral cyclorama. Although stretching the imagination this is probably acceptable until a previously invisible door - brightly lit from within - opens within the horizon backcloth. This does not make sense even to someone to with a generous amount of imagination.

The televised production looks well and it seems that editing was done ‘on-line’. Few close-ups were shown and these were always of the same characters. Often long shots were chosen when there was little in formation dancing to notice and perhaps a higher camera angle could have revealed more pattern in the movement.

The notes might have been more helpful. The different scenes are rightly given titles relating to the on-stage action, but they do not relate to the titles in the score. Anyone trying to follow from the score will face a real challenge. To provide future reference I have had to pencil in the score title movements against the particular DVD tracks. The brief notes are written in English and French while the interview of the Director is in English and that of the Dance Director is in French.

Raymond J Walker



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