Hot on the heels of the Paris Opera Ballet's DVD of Balanchine's "Jewels", comes this splendid, bittersweet, contemporary interpretation of "Sylvia."
Delibes' score is a musical masterpiece which, unlike "Coppelia," remains significantly more heard than seen. Also, unlike "Coppelia," or for that matter "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Petrushka," there is no "classic" choreography associated with it, such as the works of Perrot, Petipa, Ivanov, or Fokine. The original by Louis Merante apparently has not survived. Subsequent choreographies by Serge Lifar, Lycette Darsonval and Frederick Ashton do not seem to have had much traction. (Ashton's initial 1952 production for the Royal turned Sylvia into a Second Empire extravaganza largely dependent on the artistry of Margot Fonteyn, according to commentary I've read about it and its '60's revival). Therefore, there are no visual identifying marks for a choreographer to disturb. A choreographer can, relatively safely, take the score and give it his best shot. There are no choreographic preconceptions to offend. Isn't it great?
John Neumeier succeeds on all counts. In his own words, he turns the tale into a parable on the price paid for ambition pursued, a tale well known to dancers and athletes. His choreographic style is eclectic. He uses modern dance to make the dramatic points, and as these develop and become more eloquent, the steps morph into ballet, the girls go on point: greater freedom and depth of expression is acquired by a more rigorous application of dance technique. All is congruent with the wonderful music. It flows seamlessly, rising to peaks of eloquence in which I was much moved. Telling point: when Sylvia (phenomenal and gorgeous Aurelie Dupont) first meets Aminta (the great Manuel Legris) the hesitating motions of first acquaintance and instant infatuation are set in modern dance steps which lead into ballet as their love blossoms (in stage time), fitting the music perfectly. Another telling point: the valedictory if happenstance meeting of the now graying Sylvia and Aminta is set to the well-known "pizzicato." The fortuitousness of the meeting in the grove where they first met, the realization of time past never to be regained, of what-ifs, regrets, choices made that cannot be undone, the wrenching depth of these mature feelings is illustrated by the vivid modern choreography that commences the scene soaring into ballet at the end. The well known pizzicato tune no longer sounds frivolous, perhaps silly, but acquires eloquent poignancy through the stage image created by Neumaier. Delibes admired Wagner and many say the score to Sylvia reflects Wagner's influence. One can say that Neumeier realizes through his choreography the Wagnerian theatrical ideal of creating a theatre piece where all elements are so integrated so as to render a whole greater than its individual components. (Of course, Wagner hated ballet, particularly ballet in opera, and most particularly the Paris Opera and its ballet for what it forced him to do to Tannhauser).
Scenery, by Yannis Kokkos, is flat and lean but eloquent, relying on juxtaposition of colors and lighting to make its point (Neumeier was his own lighting designer). Neumaier wanted the scenery to give dramatic, not merely decorative support, and, most importantly, to also give him maximum room in which to deploy his dancers. I think it succeeds on all counts. If one likes Matisse or David Hockney's swimming pools one will probably like Mr. Kokkos' stage pictures.
The Paris Opera Ballet shines. In addition to Dupont and Legris, Marie-Agnes Gillot and Nicolas LeRiche are most virtuosic and eloquent as Diana and Amor/Orion. As a bit of truly sumptuous casting, the magnificent etoile Jose Martinez dances the secondary role of Endymion.
The orchestra under Paul Connelly performs the score as well as I have ever heard it and it is brilliantly reproduced. (Though I have DTS decoding, for some reason my copy didn't work; however, the Dolby 5.1 was quite fine; one could just listen to the music!).
"Sylvia" was written for and first performed as the first ballet evening at the Palais Garnier in 1870, one of the most beloved theatres in the world. Ironically, the DVD is taken from performances at the Opera Bastille, a place many people love to hate.