November is dark and dank; the world is in a state of perpetual crisis. So to watch the Royal Ballet in Sylvia – Frederick Ashton’s second full-length work, originally choreographed in 1952 – is an unabashed joy. Something delightful and dopamine-producing is going on at Covent Garden.
Delibes’ excellent score is full of proud fanfares and gorgeous melodies, but the ballet is by no means a perfect work, in terms of narrative or structure. Ashton, unsatisfied, chopped and condensed its three acts and programme notes are necessary to follow the Arcadian goings-on between wily nymph Sylvia, smitten shepherd Aminta and villainous Orion. Plus Diana, Endymion, Eros (sometimes disguised in a floppy hat) and a pair of scampering goats.
For all its silliness and camp eccentricities, it is nevertheless a glorious exhibition of Ashton’s choreographic style, complemented by grand leafy designs. Marianela Nunez performs the central role (originally a tribute to Margot Fonteyn) with all her characteristic elan and lyrical luminosity.
Flanked by Amazonian attendants, she starts off a triumphant hunter with horn in hand, the confident crispness of her footwork sweetened by the trailing musicality of her upper body. The famous pizzicato section is a virtuoso show of pluck, while in the final pas de deux she phrases little flickering steps as ecstatic grace notes to the solo violin line. Vadim Muntagirov is a convincingly sensitive shepherd, displaying magnificent elevation and landings as soft as wool.