A Sylvia Worthy of Delibes from David Bintley and Birmingham Royal Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Delibes,  Sylvia:  Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 24.6.2015 (GR).


Principal Dancers:
Count Guiccioli/Orion – Tyrone Singleton
The Contessa/Diana – Céline Gittens
The Governess/Sylvia – Momoko Hirata
The Valet/Amynta – Josef Caley
Eros – Mathias Dingman.


Choreography – David Bintley
Designs – Sue Blane
Lighting – Mark Jonathan.

If last week’s first half of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2015 Summer Season (The King Dances & Carmina Burana) was all about the male dancers of the company, BRB balanced the books with their second presentation – Sylvia. The Delibes ballet has a predominance of ballerinas – namely the collection of nymphs that attend Diana, goddess of the hunt. And it was these ladies of BRB’s troupe who stole the show on June 24th 2015 at the Birmingham Hippodrome. This accent on the feminine side is one reason why the Sylvia premiere in 1876 was so important to the history of dance, breaking with certain gender conventions of Romantic ballet. But ever since the muted reception for its initial outing at the Paris Garnier (supposedly due to the thin conception of Barbier and Reinach) it has been a far from smooth ride for Sylvia. Many renowned choreographers have tried their luck with it, all with limited success: Diaghilev, Lifar, Ashton and Neumeier. Never one to shrink from a challenge, David Bintley produced his version in 1993, but even this was revised into the edition of 2009 and revised here.

The original plot was derived from the ‘pastoral comedy’ of Aminta by Torquato Tasso, an early example of the genre in 1573, and it was David Bintley’s aim to re-capture this vein of humour in his adaptation, re-establishing certain elements that had perhaps been lost in the intervening years. Bintley’s take reminds me of two Mozart operas: Il re pastore with its mixture of shepherds and titled gentry, along with Le nozze di Figaro centred upon its two pairs of lovers – one upstairs and one downstairs. Bintley’s BRB re-working succeeds utterly and enveloped by the engaging original score of Delibes (plus a few additions from his La Source) fashions a ballet worthy of core repertoire status.

Bintley’s conception is to combine the real with the imaginary: the members of an aristocratic Italian household are taken on a fantasy journey to resolve their problems. The marriage guidance counsellor in this instance is the ideally qualified Eros (Mathias Dingman). Initially seen working in the garden of his liege, the God of Love is an overseer of both the plants and the occupants of Sue Blane’s impressive stately home set of Act I Scene 1. I thought the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Koen Kessels started in a slower tempo than is generally the case, but it suited the deliberate introduction of the guests to the social jamboree of Count Guiccioli (Tyrone Singleton). Master of all he surveys, the Count believes this entitles him to the choicest delicacies among the serving girls (as per the Beaumarchais comedy) although I wondered if his indiscretions might have been a bit more blatant. Whatever, it was enough for Eros to spirit everyone into a mythical world to sort it all out. One prop that effectively aided this transition was a huge linen basket that contained among its contents the magic bow and arrows, the tools of the archer’s trade. Emptied by Gilberto and Giorgio (securely dating Bintley’s creation) and played by Kit Holder and Lachlan Monaghan, a couple of delicious camp skinheads.

Act I Scene 2 belonged to the nymphs and their leader Diana, in this instance the alter ego of the Contessa (Céline Gittens) introduced by the Walkurian horns of the Sinfonia, but this band of maidens were more interested in the living than the souls of fallen warriors. Initially ten-strong, their ensemble movement in Blane’s moonlit rocky landscape complete with an Eros statue in traditional pose, was precise, feminine and in sync, their valse lente captivating and enthusiastically applauded. But events took a turn for the worse. Perhaps not realising it was a sin to even cast eyes upon such a divine gathering, Amynta (Josef Caley) was struck blind by Diana for his intrusion; Sylvia whilst taking pity upon him was kidnapped by Orion (a lecherous caveman transposed from the Count) with Singleton now able to display his macho image and athleticism to full advantage. But a lone Eros indicated his match-making would continue and taking his place alongside his replica, fired an arrow across the stage.

The mood for Act II was articulated by an impressive Entr’acte from the Sinfonia with leader Robert Gibbs in fine form with his solo – the curtain rising to the inside of Orion’s grotto. Holder and Monaghan were now Gog and Magog, an amusingly double act: first a cross between Wilson, Keppel and Betty (without the Betty) and a pair of male belly dancers, before undertaking a series of conjoined cartwheels. The pair were also instruments for Sylvia’s lesson in grape-treading, producing the wine to intoxicate Orion; the mix of Hirata’s movements and the Sinfonia’s lead oboe was bewitching. Singleton made a brilliant drunk, in absolute control of his uncontrollability. But Sylvia’s dilemma was not over, unable to reconcile herself when the sightless Amynta staggered in.

The nymphs delivered an enchanting introduction to Act III, their numbers swollen by the addition of the goddesses Neptune, Mars, Apollo and Jupiter (Arancha Baselga, Angela Paul, Laura Purkiss and Samar Downs respectively); together they provided a delightful divertissement of ensemble extravaganza and delicate solos. The idyllic activities of the chasseresses were interrupted by the arrival of a pirate ship. Out stepped the lavishly regaled brigands of William Bracewell, Jonathan Caguioa, Feargus Campbell and Max Maslem, alighting alongside their captain, the masterminding Eros; it gave Dingman yet another costume change, peg leg and all. The pirates were intent upon selling slave-girls into Diana’s service, but only one passes muster, Sylvia no less. With Amynta’s sight restored by Eros, Sylvia and he were reconciled, their union celebrated with a loving pas de deux, with both Hirata and Caley exceptional; Hirata’s iconic pizzicato variation was superlative – the closing accelerando of music and dancer spot on. Further jinks from the pirates were in evidence providing Dingman with his most challenging sequence to date, a test he passed with flying colours; so precise was his manoeuvrability that the stump might have been bionic. After the arrival of Diana on her sted (see photo) tensions grew and a storm brewed (courtesy the lighting of Mark Jonathan) but Eros calmed things down, returning everyone to the real world of the Guiccioli household. The God of Love had achieved his intentions and a happy ever after ending was promised.

This was a highly enjoyable evening of family entertainment. It would make a great video.


Geoff Read

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