Sylvia (Ballet) – An Absolute Classic

The mythology inspired ballet Sylvia, is a three-act ballet set to the music of French Composer Lo Delibes. Often considered to be one of Delibes’s greatest musical works the ballet Sylvia made its debut in 1876 in Paris. The inspiration for the ballet’s story is believed to be the 1573 pastoral play -Aminta’ by Italian poet Torquato Tasso. The premiere of Sylvia at the Palais Garnier in Paris on June 14th 1876 was unfortunately met with a poor reception and subsequent productions of the ballet were also largely unsuccessful.

It was the renowned dancer and choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton who resurrected the almost forgotten ballet in 1952. However Sylvia still did not receive critical acclaim it is thought largely down to it’s complicated plot. Sir Frederick tried to give the ballet more popular appeal reducing it to a one-act piece but Sylvia could still not capture the publics’ heart and Ashton eventually gave up on it in 1965. Sir Frederick believed in Sylvia though and had expressed a desire to rework it once again into a three-act ballet. This was picked up on by one of his former students, Christopher Newton, who rewrote Sylvia for the 21st Century audience and a three-act version close to Sir Frederick’s vision appeared on stage in 2001.

The main characters in the ballet are Sylvia a nymph huntress and Aminta a young shepherd who is in love with Sylvia. The other protagonists come from mythology – the God of Love Eros and Diana the Goddess of hunting. The malevolent force within the ballet comes in the guise of Orion, a hunter who also desires Sylvia’s affections. Various forest creatures, nymphs and dryads provide the ballet’s pastoral imagery, with other minor characters such as peasants and hunt attendants featured.

A Sacred wood is the title of the first act of Sylvia and the ballet begins with a ritualistic scene featuring the forest creatures and nymphs dancing for the God Eros. Both Aminta and Sylvia stumble upon the scene and while Aminta remains hidden Sylvia and her hunt attendants make themselves known and mock Eros. Sylvia shoots an arrow at the hidden Aminta, not realizing it is her ardent suitor, but injures both Eros and Aminta with her arrow. The malevolent force in the play is Orion who is also in love with Sylvia and he has been watching the whole scene unfold and he uses the ensuing confusion as an opportunity to kidnap Sylvia.

In the second Act of Sylvia, entitled Orion’s Island Cave, we find Sylvia being held against her will by Orion. Sylvia refuses all of Orion’s attempts to win her over and hatches a plan to get him drunk so she can escape. She appeals to the God of love Eros for help and he appears along with a vision for Sylvia of Aminta waiting for her at Diana’s temple. Eros helps Sylvia to escape taking her to the temple to be reunited with Aminta.

The third act is called The Sea Coast Near The Temple Of Diana and this is where Aminta and Sylvia are reunited. However Orion is in pursuit and also arrives at the temple. Orion and Aminta fight and in the confusion Orion tries to enter Diana’s shrine where Sylvia is hiding. This act enrages Diana who refuses to give Sylvia and Aminta congress. All is saved by Eros who sends a vision to Diana that reminds her of her own young love for a shepherd Endymion. This softens her heart and Aminta and Sylvia are able to come together with the blessing of the Gods.