Sylvia is one of the treasures of 19th-century lyric theatre, bewitching in all its ways. And David Bintley’s new realisation of the score, which Birmingham Royal Ballet brought to London at the end of last week, is no less beguiling.
The mythological narrative concerning Sylvia and Aminta – about whom it is hard to give a damn – is here framed by an updated, Fellini-esque setting of errant aristos, servants and a beautiful garden. (Sue Blane’s designs are, throughout, stylish, witty). A time-switch takes us back to antiquity and Bintley tells the old story with a nice sense of comedy and fluent dance.
The staging wins our hearts. I believe that “the better the score, the better the ballet” is a truth for any serious choreographer. Bintley understands (as did Ashton in his Sylvia) both the riches and limitations of Delibes’ music, everywhere felicitous and everywhere inviting to movement.
And so, in entries for Diana’s huntresses; in solos and duets for the principals (and Diana becomes as significant in the action as Aminta and Sylvia); in dramatic or light-hearted writing for Orion, the villain of the piece, and his minions; in highest jinks for Eros when he turns, convulsingly, into Peg-leg the Pirate (and is played wonderfully by Alexander Campbell, with his missing foot masquerading as a rat caught up in his coat), this interminable sentence advises you that Bintley has a merry eye and a command of classical dance-making that sits delightfully on his score. He makes sense of his narrative, the switch between modern and ancient cunningly done.
The Birmingham ensemble is assured; the principals admirable. Nao Sakuma is very musical, touching as Sylvia, and her reward is a garland of pretty variations. Elisha Willis makes a commanding figure of Diana, and Chi Cao shows, yet again, how stylish is his dancing and how touching his playing when Aminta is temporarily blinded. As Orion, Robert Parker provides, yet again, that intense identification with a role that he has ever brought to characters made for him by Bintley.
This staging is, in essence, a brilliant jeu d’esprit, inspired by the score, honouring the score. Hurrah for Bintley and his cast. And for Paul Murphy’s admirably paced view of Delibes. ★★★★☆
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