La Sylphide, Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier, Paris – review

The world knows La Sylphide mainly through August Bournonville’s 1836 ballet, carefully preserved in Denmark and in the repertoire of companies from Covent Garden to St Petersburg. The original Sylphide, however, was French: a showcase for Marie Taglioni that was choreographed by her father Filippo to a different score and soon lost to the vagaries of history. Forty years ago, choreographer Pierre Lacotte set out to recreate it using limited archive material. Pastiche or not, the result is among the best classical productions in the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire, an elaborate variation on the Romantic style, and it has made a welcome return to the company’s stage after a nine-year gap to close the season.

Bolshoi Ballet principal Evgenia Obraztsova, a guest artist for the run, is one of a handful of dancers to have danced both versions. In the Bournonville she was a butterfly, a joyous fantasy born of the hero’s dreams, but Lacotte’s Sylphide is a different creature: deception is part of her vocabulary, too. Obraztsova captures her capricious nature with inimitable charm in Act I, her eyes gleaming as she lures James away from his fiancée Effie and into the woods.

This version finds the Bolshoi star at the apogee of her stylistic powers. Obraztsova, who first danced the role with Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet in 2011, has been a muse for Lacotte in recent years, and hers is a definitive interpretation, exquisite in step and manner, a true meeting of minds between choreographer and dancer. No other ballerina today so effortlessly masters both the Russian and French styles: her footwork is a wonder of expressive clarity. To see her is to be drawn into her world, just like James: she floats through Lacotte’s punishing, intricate variations with the grace of a Romantic lithograph come to life, unconcerned with gravity or effort, delighting in her art every step of the way.

Matthias Heymann was her high-flying James, but the role saw an even finer performance the next day with the debut of Pierre-Arthur Raveau: an able partner, this young dancer displayed a lightness and elegance of means that promise future greatness. As Effie, both Mélanie Hurel and Muriel Zusperreguy gave a masterclass in precision and simplicity, and the POB corps de ballet showed again that it is at its finest in Romantic works, despite a rogue trio of Sylphs in Act II. Bournonville’s Sylphide may be the more concise and enduring masterpiece, but with its ornate divertissements and old-fashioned stage tricks, including flying sylphs, this production is a worthy French alternative.

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