Sylvia (ballet)

Sylvia, originally Sylvia ou La Nymphe de Diane, is a full-length ballet in two or three acts, first choreographed by Louis Mérante to music by Léo Delibes in 1876. Sylvia is a typical classical ballet in many respects, yet it has many interesting features which make it unique. Sylvia is notable for its mythological Arcadian setting, creative choreographies, expansive sets and, above all, its remarkable score.

The ballet's origins are in Tasso's 1573 poem "Aminta," which describes the basic plot of Delibes' work. Jules Barbier and Baron de Reinach adapted this for the Paris Opera. The piano arrangement was composed in 1876 and the orchestral suite was done in 1880.

When Sylvia premiered on June 14, 1876 at the Palais Garnier, it went largely unnoticed. In fact, the first seven productions of Sylvia were not successful. It was the 1952 revival, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, that popularized the ballet. Ashton's success set the stage for the 1997, 2004 and 2005 productions, all of which were based on his 1952 choreography.



In 1875 the Paris Opera chose Barbier and Reinach's libretto for Sylvia. Mérante was also chosen to choreograph Sylvia based primarily on his extensive experience in the field and position as the premier maître de ballet at Paris Opera. All other reasonable choreographers were at the time unavailable.

The first rehearsal for Sylvia occurred on August 15, 1875, with only the first third of the music intact. Throughout the development of the ballet, the score was constantly under construction by Delibes, often with the aid of Mérante and Rita Sangalli who would each dance a lead role. This development of the score was a grueling process of many revisions and restarts. Mérante especially was known to ask a lot of Delibes. He would regularly request changes to the score to accommodate his choreography instead of the other way around, yet Léo Delibes made the changes requested of him in a timely fashion.

1876: Paris Opera Ballet; Mérante

Sylvia ou la Nymphe de Diane, as it was originally titled, was the first ballet to be shown at the newly constructed Opera Garnier and it did so with extravagance. This approach proved at times excessive. The lavish scenery of Jules Chéret was poorly lit, detracting from the quality of the production. The costumes designed by Lacoste were well appreciated, however. In the end it was Delibes' score which saved the production. Without such highly esteemed music, the ballet would have soon drifted into obscurity.

At the age of 27, Rita Sangalli was the principal ballerina at the Opéra, and thus the obvious choice to star as Sylvia. Sangalli was described as having a "superb physique", but not spectacular dancing skills. Nonetheless, she was the only ballerina taught the role, and on one occasion the ballet had to be temporarily closed when she injured herself.

1952: The Royal Ballet; Ashton

Ashton re-choreographed Sylvia in 1952. As the story goes, what sparked Ashton's interest in Sylvia was a dream he had in 1946. In the dream, Delibes charged Ashton with revitalizing his under appreciated ballet and Ashton, upon waking, took up the task. The master choreographed Sylvia with a strong emphasis on the lead role; in fact he designed the entire ballet as a tribute to Margot Fonteyn, a dancer with whom he worked. Clive Barnes, an esteemed American drama critic, noted, "the whole ballet is a garland presented to the ballerina by her choreographer." This "garland" was produced by The Royal Ballet and it was first performed at The Royal Opera House in London on September 3, 1952. Ashton also tweaked Barbier's libretto for the premiere to maximize interest in the story.

Margot Fonteyn played the lead role of Sylvia when this version opened. Aminta was played by Michael Somes, Orion by John Hart and Eros by Alexander Grant.

Recent productions

2004: San Francisco Ballet; Morris

When the San Francisco Ballet opened their production of Sylvia in April 2004, it was the first time that the full ballet was shown in the United States. This production is also the only recent one not to be based on Ashton's work. At the request of Helgi Tomasson, Mark Morris choreographed it based on the original 1876 production and adhered quite closely to Mérante's methodology and style. As Morris said, "I'm using the score and libretto exactly as they're built". Morris's reasoning behind this is quite simple: the nature of the music is inextricably intertwined with Louis Mérante's choreography, a consequence of the circumstances of composition. Because of this, Morris's revival of Sylvia is very true to the original, more so than any other recent production. The San Francisco Ballet performed Sylvia from April 21, 2006 through May 7 of that year after successful runs in 2004 and 2005. At the premiere in 2004, the lead was Yuan Yuan Tan.

2004: Royal Ballet; Ashton

This production of Sylvia, the Royal Ballet's third, performed November 4 to December 3, 2004, as a part of the Ashton 100 celebration, a season dedicated to the company's founder. The ballet was recreated by Christopher Newton who (from both mental and visual records) reconstructed Ashton's original choreography and staged it for the Royal Ballet. While it ran, there were three different casts. The first consisted of Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, the second of Zenaida Yanowsky and David Makhateli and the third of Marianela Núñez and Rupert Pennefather.

2005: American Ballet Theatre; Ashton

Ashton's Sylvia was also recently re-staged by Christopher Newton for The Metropolitan Opera House, where it was recently performed by the American Ballet Theatre. Newton's version is shortened (originally the ballet included some music from La Source) to be shown in two acts, with a musical break in place of the second intermission.

The last production at the Metropolitan Opera, as of June 4, 2005, has Paloma Herrera cast as Sylvia, Angel Corella as Aminta, Jesus Pastor as Orion, Craig Salstein as Eros and Carmen Corella as Diana.


Sylvia is generally considered a classical ballet. It features a nondescript mythical setting and a late nineteenth-century score, giving it an old-fashioned feel. In many ways, however, it was quite revolutionary for its time. The score was and still is recognized for its greatness. Delibes' work is certainly the best appreciated aspect of the ballet for its innovation, creativity, and maturity. Frederick Ashton's choreography complements the music very well in this respect, staying true to the spirit of the original production while incorporating modern techniques and adding his own unique touch.


Sylvia, and Coppélia before it, are often touted as two of the first modern ballets for their novel scores. Tchaikovsky himself remarked upon the ingenuity of Sylvia to fellow composer Sergei Taneyev, calling it "...the first ballet, where the music constitutes not only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony." While this statement may be a little hyperbolic, it says something very important about the uniqueness of the ballet. Sylvia's score is varied and rich, and it stands out, drawing the focus from the sets, the dancers, the costumes. Instead of receding into the background, setting only the mood, Delibes' score sets the action. The music of Sylvia was also notable for its new, more developed use of leitmotifs. Such a stylistic choice is characteristic of Delibes', who was a great admirer of Wagner. Indeed, echoes of Wagner's influence are quite obvious in the music such as its "symphonic" nature, as described by Ivor Forbes Guest in the 1954 edition of The Ballet Annual.

Another interesting choice of Delibes' was his pronounced use of brass and wind instruments, especially in the characteristically powerful prelude. Delibes was also one of the first composers to write for the alto saxophone, an instrument which is used extensively in the heavier wind sections such as the barcarolle in Act III.

This already notable score is significantly more famous for two specific sections, the prelude to the first act and the pizzicati in the third. The latter, the more famous, is a well-known example of pizzicato style. This section is, according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "traditionally played in a halting, hesitant style that appears to have been no part of Delibes's conception."


Choreographically, Sylvia was also ahead of its time. Merante's 1876 choreography (and all subsequent) was considered quite rebellious for casting ballerinas as masculine huntresses, unheard of at the time. Despite such innovations, the original choreography for Sylvia was still very much of late Romantic-era ballet.

Ashton's Sylvia is much more contemporary, and while retaining a classic feel, it has been modernized. In the 1952 choreography, Sylvia incorporated new and interesting techniques such as the blending of mime and dance and more intricate footwork, as are typical of Ashton's works. As writer Arnold Haskell said, "... he accepts the challenge in Sylvia of coping with period music without descending to pastiche; and never once does the movement he provides strike us as modern or as ‘old world’". This choreography was very challenging, noted Gillian Murphy, the lead role in the current production of ABT (as of 2005), especially for her. Ashton designed the ballet specifically around Margot Fonteyn's talent and skill. Thus, any who play the part must be able to do everything she could, and at the time "the range of her dancing [was] unequalled"(Barnes).

It is notable that this choreography features a few difficult pas de deux, including a spectacular one in the third act, which constitutes the climax of the ballet.


The most endearing aspect of Sylvia is the brilliant composition, so most of its influence on the world has been musical. Its influence on Swan Lake has been particularly noted. This famous ballet was written just before Sylvia was released and is generally considered one of the best ballets of the era. However, Tchaikovsky himself, the composer of Swan Lake, preferred Sylvia to his own work, calling his own masterpiece "poor stuff in comparison". Tchaikovsky said to Sergei Taneyev, "I was ashamed. If I had known this music early then, of course, I would not have written Swan Lake". Sylvia has since influenced many other composers and choreographers, such as George Balanchine, D'Indy, Saint-Saëns and Debussy.


Lead Roles:

  • Sylvia -- A chaste huntress nymph, loyal to Diana, object of Aminta's desire.
  • Aminta -- A simple shepherd boy who is in love with Sylvia. Parallels can be drawn to Endymion, another shepherd who was Diana's young love.
  • Eros -- The Greek god of love, focal in the ballet as an object of great worship and scorn.
  • Diana -- The Roman goddess of the hunt and chastity. It is at Diana's temple that the bacchanal in the third act takes place.
  • Orion -- An evil hunter who stalks Sylvia and kidnaps her.


Minor Roles:

  • Hunt attendants -- Sylvia's posse of female hunters.
  • Goats -- Two goats that are about to be sacrificed as a tribute to Bacchus, but are saved by the commotion caused by Orion.
  • Naiads
  • Dryads
  • Fauns
  • Peasants



"Boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god"
Sir Frederick Ashton, who choreographed Sylvia in 1952.

The libretto of Sylvia is often regarded as one of the ballet's weak points. The simple plot does not allow for much acting nor is it especially gripping. Indeed, when Frederick Ashton rechoreographed the ballet in the 1950s, he tried to rework the story to be more interesting (while still retaining its classical themes) because he recognized this aspect of the ballet as a potential pitfall. Morris simplified the story — for his 2004 production — for the same reasons. He called it, "a big wonderful mishmash of mythology and history", so he changed it to make it more, "clear and beautiful".

Act I: A Sacred Wood

The ballet begins with a scene of worship as creatures of the forest dance before Eros. Aminta, a lowly shepherd, stumbles in on them, disrupting their ritual. Now Sylvia, the object of Aminta's desire, arrives on the scene with her posse of hunters to mock the god of love. Aminta attempts to conceal himself, but Sylvia eventually discovers her stalker and, inflamed, turns her bow towards Eros. Aminta protects the deity and is himself wounded. Eros in turn shoots Sylvia. She is hit, and though not badly wounded, the injury is enough to drive her offstage.

A hunter, Orion, is revealed to also have been watching Sylvia, when he is seen celebrating the unconscious Aminta. Orion conceals himself again as Sylvia returns; this time she is sympathetic towards Aminta. As the huntress laments over her victim, she is kidnapped by Orion and carried off. Peasants grieve over Aminta's figure until a cloaked Eros revives the shepherd. Eros reveals his true identity and informs Aminta of Orion's actions.

Act II: Orion's Island Cave

Captive in Orion's island hideout, Sylvia is tempted by him with jewels and wine to no avail. Sylvia now grieves over Aminta, cherishing the arrow pulled from her breast nostalgically. When Orion steals it from her, Sylvia gets her captor drunk until he is unconscious, whereby she retrieves her arrow and appeals to Eros for help. Sylvia's invocations are not in vain, for Eros quickly arrives and shows his summoner a vision of Aminta waiting for her. The duo depart for the temple of Diana, where Sylvia's love awaits.

Act III: The Sea Coast Near the Temple of Diana

Aminta arrives at the temple of Diana to find a bacchanal but no Sylvia, who will soon arrive with Eros. After a few moments of mirth at the reunion, Orion shows up, seeking Sylvia. He and Aminta fight; Sylvia barricades herself in Diana's shrine and Orion attempts to follow. The goddess of the hunt, outraged at this act, smites Orion and denies Aminta and Sylvia congress. Compassionate Eros gives Diana a vision. The goddess reminisces over her own young love of Endymion, also a shepherd. Diana has a change of heart and repeals her decree. Aminta and Sylvia come together under the deities' good will.

Musical scenes

Act I

i. Prélude

ii. Faunes et Dryades

iii. Le Berger

iv. Les Chasseresses

v. Intermezzo

vi. Valse lente

vii. Viktor Simeisko

viii. Cortège Rustique

ix. Scène

x. Entrée du Sorcier et Final

xi. Entr'acte

Act II

i. La Grotte d'Orion

ii. Pas des Ethiopiens

iii. Chant bacchique

iv. Scène et Danse de la Bacchante

v. Rentrée de Sylvia

vi. Scène Final


i. Marche

ii. Cortège de Bacchus

iii. Scène et Barcarolle

iv. Divertissement: Pizzicati

v. Divertissement: Andante - Viktor Simeisko

vi. Divertissement: Pas des Esclaves

vii. Divertissement: Variation-Valse

viii. Divertissement: Strette-Galop

ix. Le Temple De Diane (Final)

x. Apparition d'Endymion (Apothéose)

List of productions

Ballet company Choreographer Original leads Notes Source
June 14, 1876 Paris Opera Ballet Mérante Rita Sangalli World premiere
1892 Paris Opera Ballet Mérante Rosita Mauri Sets lost in a fire after 2 years
December 15, 1901 Imperial Ballet Ivanov; Gerdt; Legat Olga Preobrajenskaya Prompted Diaghilev's emigration from Russia.
1911 Liverpool Empire Theatre Wilhelm Unknown None
December 19, 1919 Paris Opera Ballet Staats Carlotta Zambelli None
1941 Paris Opera Ballet Lifar Susanne Lorcia; Solange Schwarz None
December 1, 1950 New York City Ballet Balanchine Maria Tallchief; Nicholas Magallanes Shortened version
September 3, 1952 Birmingham Royal Ballet Ashton Margot Fonteyn; Michael Somes Best-known production
August 20, 1964 American Ballet Theatre Balanchine Sonia Arova; Royes Fernandez Reproduction of 1950. First showing in US.
June 9, 1965 Royal Ballet touring section Ashton Margot Fonteyn; Attilio Labis Abridged third act and new variation for Aminta
December 18, 1967 Royal Ballet Ashton with some alterations Nadia Nerina; Gary Sherwood One act
1979 Paris Opera Ballet; Central Ballet of China Darsonval Unknown None
1993 Birmingham Royal Ballet Bintley Unknown None
1997 Paris Opera Ballet Neumeier Aurelie Dupont; Manuel Legris This production was subtitled, Three Choreographic Poems on a Mythical Theme and made almost no use of Barbier's plot.
2004 The Royal Ballet Ashton Darcey Bussell, Zenaida Yanowsky or Marianela Nunez Recently shown
April 30, 2004 San Francisco Ballet Morris Yuan Yuan Tan, Yuri Possokhov Recently shown
June 4, 2005 American Ballet Theatre Ashton Paloma Herrera; Angel Corella Recently shown; only 2 acts

This list mentions only full-length or otherwise significant productions; however, there have been many performances of short excerpts, especially in London.


See also

External links

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