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

“…bring “Sylvia” out into the light, and it shines: the music is, in its own right, both vibrant and colourful, evocative and atmospheric... ‘’

Paul Serotsky introduces us to Léo Delibes’s ballet suite “Sylvia’’.

Paul’s infectious enthusiasm for classical music shines through every paragraph, sentence and phrase of his writing. Read more of his columns by clicking on Views And Reviews in the menu on this page.

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 the shadow of “Coppélia”. But bring “Sylvia” out into the light, and it shines: the music is, in its own right, both 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 drastic over-simplification suggests why Delibes adopted a symphonic approach, back then something of a radical departure for ballet. 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 by far the biggest revolution in the history of the form.

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 cool waters of the stream.

3. Nowadays, the “Pizzicati” comes second only to the “Dance of the Cygnets” as the “Most Abused Bit of Ballet - Ever”. In third and final act of “Sylvia” 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 true 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 suggest that he succeeded!

© Paul Serotsky, 2007

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