This past April I wrote about the first volume in a series of video releases by Opus Arte entitled The Frederick Ashton Collection. The package consisted of three video discs, each of which documented a single program at the Royal Opera House consisting entirely of a program of shorter ballets all choreographed by Ashton. The performances themselves took place between February of 2013 and June of 2017.
At little over a week ago, Opus Arte released the second volume in this series, available, once again in both Blu-ray and DVD formats. There are again three discs in the set; but this time each consists of a full-evening ballet. The recordings were made much earlier, meaning that several of the faces on this new release will look a lot younger than they did in the first volume! The ballets themselves, in the order of their recorded performances, are La Fille Mal Gardée (February 2, 2005), Sylvia (December 1 and 5, 2005), and Tales of Beatrix Potter (December 23 and 27, 2007).
I wrote about the first volume in its entirely, in part because, before this project was launched, I had already written about one of the three discs in the set. This time, however, I feel that each of the full-length ballets deserves its own “full-length” space. Rather than traversing the set chronologically, I have chosen to begin with Sylvia, since that is the one ballet that I would be seeing for the first time.
Sylvia is a ballet better known for its music, by Léo Delibes, than its choreography or, for that matter, the narrative behind the choreography. The choreography was created by Louis Mérante in 1876, drawing upon the play Aminta, written by Torquato Tasso in 1573. One might describe it as a pastoral in which things go seriously wrong (and leave the Arcadian setting); but, as can be expected, everything turns out right in the end. The original version was not particularly successful, and audiences seemed happy enough just listening to Delibes music until Ashton created a revival in 1952, conceived as a tribute to Margot Fonteyn, who danced the title role.
The basic scenario (including the names of those that danced with Fonteyn) has to do with Sylvia having pledged herself to follow Diana; and, when we first encounter her, she has become a skilled huntress. Nevertheless, there is a shepherd, Aminta (Michael Somes), who loves her; and that love is fostered through the arrows of Eros (Alexander Grant). While the course of Aminta’s love never runs smooth, Eros gets a perfect shot aimed at Sylvia, leaving her confused by a change of sympathies. Meanwhile, her hunting ground has been invaded Orion (John Hart), who kidnaps her and carries her off to his own island. Naturally, everything works out for Aminta and Sylvia by the end of the ballet, whose scenario was summarized by Ashton himself far more briefly:
Boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god
The performers on the recording are Darcey Bussell (Sylvia), Roberto Bolle (Aminta), Thiago Soares (Orion), Martin Harvey (Eros), and Mara Galeazzi (Diana). The revival staging was by Christopher Newton, who had assisted Ashton’s work on this ballet.
If the basic plot is a bit on the thin side, Ashton conceived any number of devices to maintain audience attention. He never had a shortage of wit; nor was he shy about summoning up throw-away gags. Thus, having the shepherdesses in the corps carry little white plush-toy lambs was never a focus of attention; but its presence amounted to a poke in the ribs at the willing suspension of disbelief. A more serious evocation of that suspension came from the decision to present Eros as a statue that is animated at just the right time to take shots at Aminta and Sylvia. (Animated statues were big in the theatre towards the end of the eighteenth century, Don Giovanni being one of the best-known examples; but they had fallen out of fashion a hundred years later.)
All of the action unfolds in the context of energetic conducting by Graham Bond. Much of the momentum of the narrative is carried by the episodic nature of Delibes’ composition. Most music lovers will recognize many of the excerpts from the score, if not the entirety of that score. There is a fair amount of variation in the approaches that Ashton would take to the music for his choreography, but this is a ballet in which the music fires on all cylinders and confidently escorts the attentive listener through the twists and turns of the narrative.
Any readers on the other side of this continent probably know that this particular Ashton ballet has been added to the repertoire of American Ballet Theatre (again through the efforts of Newton); and I, for one, am glad that the Ashton legacy is being kept alive by and least one company other than the Royal Ballet.