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.
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.
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.