Sylvia, Ballet by Manuel Legris
The 19th century was not a great time for ballet, until Tchaikovsky emerged as the genre's rescuer with his symphonic and lyrical sensibilities. Unknown to many, the talented Russian was heavily influenced by his contemporary Léo Delibes and once stated that Swan Lake paled in comparison to Sylvia. Delibes' inspired and inspiring ballet will grace the stage of the Vienna State Opera with new choreography by Manuel Legris.
Léo Delibes began working on Sylvia in 1875, with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Baron de Reinach. The two authors took their cue from the 1573 play Aminta by Torquato Tasso, a fantastical narrative about the love between the shepherd Aminta and the nymph Silvia . Set in Ancient Greek times, the pastoral theme and the mythical creatures give the ballet an instantly transporting feel.
The ballet was commissioned by the Paris Opera, with Louis Mérante as chief choreographer. This choice proved taxing for Delibes. Mérante kept requesting musical revisions to match his dance sequences. Despite the strained working relationship, Delibes was able to satisfy his choreographer's numerous demands and produced an outstanding score along the way.
Sylvia was premiered on 14 June 1876 at the Palais Garnier in Paris to a lukewarm response. Mérante's choreography in particular left audiences cold. Subsequent stagings also underperformed, and it was not until Sir Frederick Ashton's 1952 revival production that this ballet achieved international fame.
Despite its slow start, one aspect of Sylvia that earned the work praise from the very beginning was Delibes' fantastic score. A treasure trove of creative orchestration and ear-catching melodies, it deserves all the praise ballet insiders and connoisseurs have heaped upon it.
Delibes borrowed some of Wagner's flare for the dramatic, which was very popular in Europe at the time, but he masterfully intertwined bombastic passages with gentle, toned down sequences, always applying his keen sense for dynamics and clarity. The composer used the full power of the orchestra and showcased some unusual instruments, such as the alto saxophone in the 'Barcarolle' or the piccolo flute and drums in 'Pas des Éthiopiens'.
Thanks to Delibes' remarkable score and Legris' new choreography, Sylvia continues its reign at the Wiener Staatsoper.