After a gap of several years, Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia makes a welcome return to the Covent Garden stage. Forget about the ridiculous story — assorted gods, nymphs, peasants and goats (yes, you read that right) — get caught up in a tale of love, abduction and a lot of archery. Instead, relish the dancing, especially that of Marianela Nuñez, in the role of the eponymous heroine.
Ashton originally created Sylvia for Margot Fonteyn in 1952, and it still poses many challenges for the Royal Ballet today. The central character is rarely off the stage and has to be everything from implacable nymph, to seductive temptress and, eventually, loving bride. The choreography is full of typical Ashton speedy footwork and luscious use of the arms and shoulders.
This season, the role of Sylvia is shared by three of the company’s ballerinas. At the performance I saw, Nuñez shone, bringing clarity and elegance to every step. She pulled off the difficult pizzicato solo with ease (you would know the instantly familiar music, even if you’ve never seen a pointe shoe in your life); and in Vadim Muntagirov, she had a fine partner. Thiago Soares made the most of the two-dimensional wicked hunter Orion.
Other standout performances came from Gina Storm-Jensen, who lights up the stage with the sunniest of smiles, and Elizabeth Harrod, as a perky goat.
Delibes’s wonderful score (said to have influenced and deeply impressed Tchaikovsky) came to life under the skilful baton of Simon Hewett.
One minor quibble: the curtains keep being brought down a fraction too soon. The audience needs a moment to relish the final tableau at the end of each act. Timing is everything for dancers — it should be for the backstage crew too.
The Royal Ballet’s ‘Sylvia’ is at the Royal Opera House until December 16