Sylvia review – lustful hunters and weapons-grade dancing

Royal Opera House, London
Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova take turns playing one of classical dance’s most unconventional heroines, in the Royal Ballet’s opulent Arcadian fantasy

Women play an unusually sparky role in Sylvia, the 1952 ballet with which Frederick Ashton brought Léo Delibes’s shimmering 19th-century score to the British stage. From the first entrance of Sylvia and her fellow huntresses, triumphantly carrying the carcass of a slain deer, to the moment when the goddess Diana dispatches the villain of the story with one lethal arrow, this is a rare instance of a classically based ballet in which the women get to call most of the shots.

Sylvia herself is unusually varied for a ballet heroine. She’s as powerful as a Valkyrie in act one as she brazenly mocks Eros, the god of love. In act two, when she’s been kidnapped by the wicked Orion, she refuses to languish but bamboozles her captor into a riotous bout of drinking that leaves him snoring and safely unconscious on a couch. Even though Ashton’s Sylvia is eventually transformed into a conventional ballerina – her hunter’s helmet replaced by a tiara and tutu and her virginal resolve pierced by Eros’s arrow – she is far from passive. During the grand pas in which she is united with her lover Aminta, something of her proud Amazon spirit remains in the competitive thrust of her pirouettes and jumps.

Ashton made this role for Margot Fonteyn, and half a century later it continues to be a gift for ballerinas, testing them to work across an unusually wide technical range. Marianela Nuñez, who dances in the first cast in the Royal’s revival, is a gifted Ashton stylist and across all three acts of the ballet she offers a masterclass in musicality and detail, teasing out the melodies of Delibes’s score as her body curves and stretches over tight, bright footwork.

Marianela Nunez as Sylvia.
Classical riches … Marianela Nuñez as Sylvia. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Her weakest moment is the opening solo, in which her dancing is more silver than steel, but once the story moves into gear, Nuñez shakes off her reserve. In act two she exults in the comedy of her slinking seduction of Orion (danced by Thiago Soares with a nice mix of swagger and dumb lust) and in act three she displays the full classical riches of her technique – from the exacting needlepoint of the pizzicato solo to the gorgeous opulence of the closing pas de deux.

Natalia Osipova, who makes her debut as Sylvia this season, brings a style that is more Bolshoi than Ashton to the role. Her act one is powered by almost weapons-grade dancing – the brio of her pirouettes and the twanging trajectory of her jumps so forceful that even Orion has trouble hoisting her away to his cave. Captivity puts this Sylvia in a very bad temper, and there is a distinctly vengeful edge to the siren sexiness with which she runs rings around Ryoichi Hirano’s Orion.

But as enjoyably spirited as Osipova’s dancing may be, it comes with a certain harshness that rides roughshod over the choreography’s more delicate detail: the crescent moon curve that is Sylvia’s gestural motif, the tremulous footwork that signals that she is, reluctantly, falling in love. Osipova dashes enjoyably at the virtuoso challenge of the final act (the climactic fish dives elicit audible gasps), yet she’s all flourish and attack, and her dancing seems deaf to the more exquisite threads of poetry running through Delibes’s score.

Natalia Osipova as Sylvia.
Flourish and attack … Natalia Osipova as Sylvia. Photograph: Alice Pennefather

Compared with the potentially rich mix of Sylvia’s character, Aminta is almost a cipher, a gentle shepherd who has to rely on the gods’ intervention to get his girl. But the startling purity of technique that Vadim Muntagirov brings to the role elevates Aminta’s pure-heartedness to a kind of heroism. His jumps soar, as if catching the breeze from his wide open torso and arms, his turns are ineffably clean cut; and as wonderfully as he dances, he’s also an impeccable partner to Nuñez, self-effacing in his support yet beaming out a steady wattage of adoration.

Federico Bonelli, however, fares less well in the role. He is a beautiful dancer who can always shape a phrase so that it captures the flow of his character’s emotions. Yet paired with Osipova he looks uncomfortable and the occasional glitches in their partner-work seem indicative of a mutually constrained chemistry.

Some of these glitches, though, are the result of the egregiously fussy costumes and props that litter this ballet. Ashton’s Sylvia is a transparently silly story made delightful by the quality of its choreography and score. Yet too often the work is made to look kitsch by the sheer quantity of stuff that is on stage: the toy lambs, wheelbarrows, scythes and so on, which burden the peasants as they dance; the votive statues, lyres, cymbals and trumpets that crowd the closing festivities. Even in 1952, critics complained that Sylvia looked old fashioned; now, if the ballet is to retain a 21st-century audience, it is surely in need of a rigorous declutter.

•In rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 16 Dec. Box office: 020-7304 4000.

Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Royal Ballet: Beauty Mixed Programme review – rose petals and a lust for water
A wild variety of pas de deux fuel this mixed bill, from kitschy Strauss to a duet with a table, plus part of Sleeping Beauty

Lyndsey Winship

27, Jun, 2021 @4:29 PM

Article image
Manon review – touching greatness, three times over
the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward, Natalia Osipova and Marianela Nuñez all touch greatness in the coveted role of Kenneth MacMillan’s tragic heroine

Luke Jennings

15, Apr, 2018 @6:59 AM

Article image
Anastasia review – Natalia Osipova offers sensitive glimpses of a soul in hell
It’s hard to know why the Royal Ballet have revived Kenneth MacMillan’s flawed study of madness, but Osipova’s magnificent performance makes it worthwhile

Judith Mackrell

27, Oct, 2016 @11:28 AM

Article image
La Bayadère review – moonlit heights from Nuñez and co
Visually intoxicating and beautifully danced – mostly – by the Royal Ballet, Petipa’s Indian romance remains problematic

Luke Jennings

11, Nov, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
La Bayadère review – Marianela Núñez dances with heart-rending beauty
The loose plotting of the love story is offset by performers who elevate the melodrama to mesmerising levels

Lyndsey Winship

02, Nov, 2018 @11:55 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet: Ashton double bill review – Osipova is regal and electric
The Royal’s revival of Rhapsody turns from pretty to thrilling, while Two Pigeons takes off in playful, touching style

Judith Mackrell

21, Jan, 2016 @12:59 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet review – Connectome is a scientific breakthrough on stage
Alastair Marriott's neuroscience-themed work holds its own against revivals of The Concert and The Dream, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

02, Jun, 2014 @11:47 AM

Article image
Les Patineurs / Winter Dreams / The Concert review – festive cheer and tears at the Royal Ballet
A fine take on Chekhov’s melancholy Three Sisters brings bite to this seasonal triple bill, before ice skaters and lovers restore the yuletide glow

Lyndsey Winship

19, Dec, 2018 @2:44 PM

Cinderella – review
In a heroic, intuitive performance, the National Ballet of Canada's Guillaume Côté subtly transforms Tamara Rojo's dancing, allowing her to take flight, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

15, Dec, 2010 @10:20 PM

Article image
The Royal Ballet: Ashton mixed bill review – a five-star masterclass
Elegance and intelligence abound in this evening devoted to the genius of the choreographer Frederick Ashton, says Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

20, Oct, 2014 @12:24 PM