Sylvia (ballet)

Sylvia, originally Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane, is a full-length ballet in two or three acts, first choreographed by Louis Mérante to music by Léo Delibes in 1876. Sylvia is a typical classical ballet in many respects, yet it has many interesting features that make it unique. Sylvia is notable for its mythological Arcadian setting, creative choreographies, expansive sets and, above all, its remarkable score.

Rita Sangalli as Sylvia in the 1876 production

The ballet's origins are in Tasso's 1573 play Aminta, which provides the basic plot of Delibes' work. Jules Barbier and Baron de Reinach[1] adapted this for the Paris Opera.[2][3] The piano arrangement was composed in 1876 and the orchestral suite was done in 1880.[4]

When Sylvia premiered on Wednesday, June 14, 1876, at the Palais Garnier, it went largely unnoticed. In fact, the first seven productions of Sylvia were not commercially successful. It was the 1952 revival, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, that popularized the ballet. Ashton's success set the stage for the 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2009 productions, all of which were based on his 1952 choreography.



In 1875, the Paris Opera chose Barbier and Reinach's libretto for Sylvia. Mérante was also chosen to choreograph Sylvia based primarily on his extensive experience in the field and position as the premier maître de ballet at Paris Opera. All other reasonable choreographers were at the time unavailable.[5]

Rehearsals for Sylvia begin on August 15, 1875, with only the first third of the music intact. Throughout the rehearsal period the score was under constant revision by Delibes, often with the "aid" of Mérante and Rita Sangalli who would each dance a lead rôle. This development of the score was a grueling process of many revisions and restarts. Mérante was especially demanding of Delibes and would regularly request changes to the score to accommodate his choreography, yet Léo Delibes made the changes requested of him in a timely fashion.[5]

1876: Paris Opera Ballet; MéranteEdit

Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane, as it was originally titled, was the first ballet to be shown at the newly constructed Opera Garnier and it did so with extravagance. This approach proved at times excessive. The lavish scenery of Jules Chéret was poorly lit, detracting from the quality of the production. The costumes designed by Lacoste were well appreciated, however. In the end it was Delibes' score that saved the production. Without such highly esteemed music, the ballet would have soon drifted into obscurity.[citation needed]

At the age of 27, Rita Sangalli was the principal ballerina at the Opéra, and thus the obvious choice to star as Sylvia. Sangalli was described as having a "superb physique",[citation needed] but not spectacular dancing skills. Nonetheless, she was the only ballerina taught the rôle, and on one occasion the ballet had to be temporarily closed when she injured herself.[5]

Olga Preobrajenska in the title rôle of Sylvia. St. Petersburg, 1901
Sergei Legat in the rôle of the shepherd Aminta in Sylvia. This photograph shows the moment where he is struck by Sylvia's arrow. St. Petersburg, 1901.

1901: The Imperial Ballet; Ivanov and GerdtEdit

Among the first important versions of Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane following the original production of 1876 was a production presented by the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia on 15 December [O.S. 2 December] 1901.[6] The ballet had been performed in Russia before: in 1886 the ballerina Antonietta Dell'Era (noted for creating the rôle of the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker in 1892) performed excerpts from the ballet at the Arcadia Theatre of St. Petersburg, and in 1892 the ballerina Carlotta Brianza (noted creator of the rôle of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty in 1890) performed the full-length work at the Fantasia Theatre in Moscow.[6]

The Mariinsky Theatre's production was originally planned for the 1900–1901 season in a staging supervised by Sergei Diaghilev, with décors and costumes designed by Alexandre Benois and choreography by the brothers Sergei and Nikolai Legat.[6] But differences between Diaghilev and the director of the Imperial Theatres, Prince Volkonsky, led to the project's cancellation as well as the end of Diaghilev's association with the Imperial Theatres, an event that led Diaghilev to eventually form the original Ballets Russes in 1909.[6] Nevertheless, the ballet was rescheduled for the 1901–1902 season in a version mounted by the Imperial Theatre's Deuxieme Maître de Ballet Lev Ivanov, whose death in December 1901 caused the director to hand the project over to the noted Premier danseur Pavel Gerdt.[6] Perhaps Ivanov's most lasting contribution to the ballet's history was the change of title from Sylvia, ou la nymphe de Diane to simply Sylvia.[6]

The cast included the great Prima ballerina Olga Preobrajenska in the title rôle and the danseur Sergei Legat as the shepherd Aminta. Also included among the ballet's secondary characters was a young Agrippina Vaganova as a nymph of the Goddess Diana, and Pavel Gerdt in the rôle of Orion.[7]

Although the dances of the ballerina Preobrajenska were a great success, the first performance was not. The editor-publisher of the Saint Petersburg Gazette, Sergei Khudekov, himself a ballet expert and noted for co-authoring the librettos for several ballets staged at the Mariinsky,[8] was one of several critics who complained that the Ivanov/Gerdt choreography was of poor quality, and that the libretto was extremely slight.[6] Another element that contributed to the ballet's failure was the fact that the direction did not allow any new décors to be created, and instead sets were utilized from works that were no longer being performed.[6] After only five performances Sylvia was taken out of the company's repertory.[6] In spite of this, excerpts from the ballet were included in gala events.[9]

The ballerina Anna Pavlova occasionally included many of these extracts from the 1902 production on her world tours in a revised staging by balletmaster Ivan Clustine.[9] In attendance for one of her London appearances was a young Frederick Ashton, whose memories of Pavlova's performance would inspire him to create his own renowned version for the ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1952.[10]

1952: The Royal Ballet; AshtonEdit

Margot Fonteyn kneeling before Julia Farron (Diana) in the 1952 production

Ashton re-choreographed Sylvia in 1952. As the story goes, what sparked Ashton's interest in Sylvia was a dream he had in 1946. In the dream, Delibes charged Ashton with revitalizing his under-appreciated ballet and Ashton, upon waking, took up the task.[11] The master choreographed Sylvia with a strong emphasis on the lead rôle; in fact he designed the entire ballet as a tribute to Margot Fonteyn, a dancer with whom he worked. Clive Barnes, an American drama critic, noted, "the whole ballet is a garland presented to the ballerina by her choreographer."[11][12] This "garland" was produced by The Royal Ballet and it was first performed at The Royal Opera House in London on September 3, 1952. Ashton also tweaked Barbier's libretto for the premiere to maximize interest in the story.[citation needed]

Margot Fonteyn played the lead rôle of Sylvia when this version opened. Aminta was played by Michael Somes, Orion by John Hart[13] and Eros by Alexander Grant.[citation needed]

Recent productionsEdit

2004: San Francisco Ballet; MorrisEdit

When the San Francisco Ballet opened their production of Sylvia in April 2004, it was the first time that the full ballet was shown in the United States. This production is also the only recent one not to be based on Ashton's work. At the request of Helgi Tomasson, Mark Morris choreographed it based on the original 1876 production and adhered quite closely to Mérante's methodology and style. As Morris said, "I'm using the score and libretto exactly as they're built".[14] Morris's reasoning behind this is quite simple: the nature of the music is inextricably intertwined with Louis Mérante's choreography, a consequence of the circumstances of composition. Because of this, Morris's revival of Sylvia is very true to the original, more so than any other recent production. The San Francisco Ballet performed Sylvia from April 21 through May 7, 2006, after successful runs in 2004 and 2005. At the premiere in 2004, the lead was Yuan Yuan Tan.[15][16]

Gillian Murphy and Maxim Beloserkovsky as Sylvia and Aminta in American Ballet Theatre's 2005 production of Ashton's Sylvia

2004: Royal Ballet; AshtonEdit

This production of Sylvia, the Royal Ballet's third, performed November 4 to December 3, 2004, as a part of the "Ashton 100" celebration, a season dedicated to the company's founder.[17] The ballet was recreated by Christopher Newton who (from both mental and visual records) reconstructed Ashton's original choreography and staged it for the Royal Ballet. While it ran, there were three different casts. The first consisted of Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, the second of Zenaida Yanowsky and David Makhateli and the third of Marianela Núñez and Rupert Pennefather.[citation needed][18]

2005: American Ballet Theatre; AshtonEdit

Ashton's Sylvia was also recently re-staged by Christopher Newton for The Metropolitan Opera House, where it was recently performed by the American Ballet Theatre. Newton's version is shortened (originally the ballet included some music from La Source) to be shown in two acts, with a musical break in place of the second intermission.[citation needed]

Julie Kent and Gennadi Saveliev in American Ballet Theatre's 2005 production of Ashton's Sylvia

The last production at the Metropolitan Opera, as of June 4, 2005, had Paloma Herrera cast as Sylvia, Angel Corella as Aminta, Jesus Pastor as Orion, Craig Salstein as Eros and Carmen Corella as Diana.[citation needed]


Sylvia is generally considered a classical ballet.[by whom?] It features a nondescript mythical setting and a late nineteenth-century score, both of which give it an old-fashioned feel[according to whom?]. In many ways, however, it was quite revolutionary for its time. The score was and still is recognized for its greatness. Delibes' work is certainly the best appreciated aspect of the ballet for its innovation, creativity, and maturity. Frederick Ashton's choreography complements the music very well in this respect, staying true to the spirit of the original production while incorporating modern techniques and adding his own unique touch.[editorializing][citation needed]


Sylvia, and Coppélia before it, are often touted[by whom?] as two of the first modern ballets for their novel scores.[19] Tchaikovsky himself remarked to fellow composer Sergei Taneyev upon the ingenuity of Sylvia, calling it "... the first ballet, where the music constitutes not only the main, but the only interest. What charm, what elegance, what richness of melody, rhythm, harmony."[20][21] While this statement may be a little hyperbolic, it says something very important about the uniqueness of the ballet. Sylvia's score is varied and rich, and it stands out, drawing the focus from the sets, the dancers, the costumes. Instead of receding into the background, setting only the mood, Delibes' score sets the action. The music of Sylvia was also notable for its new, more developed use of leitmotifs.[22] Such a stylistic choice is characteristic of Delibes, who was a great admirer of Wagner. Indeed, echoes of Wagner's influence are quite obvious in the music such as its "symphonic" nature, as described by Ivor Forbes Guest in the 1954 edition of The Ballet Annual.[5]

Another interesting choice of Delibes was his pronounced use of brass and wind instruments, especially in the characteristically powerful prelude. Delibes was also one of the first composers to write for the alto saxophone,[23] an instrument used extensively in the heavier wind sections such as the barcarolle in Act III.[4]

The prelude to the first act and the pizzicati in the third are the significantly more famous sections of this already notable score. The latter, the more famous, is a well-known example of pizzicato style. This section is, according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "traditionally played in a halting, hesitant style that appears to have been no part of Delibes's conception."

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was written just before Sylvia was released and is generally considered[by whom?] one of the best ballets of the era. However, Tchaikovsky himself preferred Sylvia to his own work, calling his own masterpiece "poor stuff in comparison".[11] Tchaikovsky said to Sergei Taneyev, "I was ashamed. If I had known this music early then, of course, I would not have written Swan Lake".[21]


Angel Corella in a 2005 performance as Aminta, from an ABT production of Frederick Ashton's ballet Sylvia

Choreographically, Sylvia was also ahead of its time. Merante's 1876 choreography (and all subsequent) was considered quite rebellious for casting ballerinas as masculine huntresses,[24] unheard of at the time. Despite such innovations, the original choreography for Sylvia was still very much of late Romantic-era ballet.[citation needed]

Ashton's Sylvia is much more contemporary, and while retaining a classic feel, it has been modernized. In the 1952 choreography, Sylvia incorporated new and interesting techniques such as the blending of mime and dance and more intricate footwork, as are typical of Ashton's works.[11][12] As writer Arnold Haskell said, "he accepts the challenge in Sylvia of coping with period music without descending to pastiche; and never once does the movement he provides strike us as modern or as 'old world'".[11] Gillian Murphy, the lead rôle in the 2005 ABT production, noted this choreography was very challenging. Ashton designed the ballet specifically around Margot Fonteyn's talent and skill. Thus, any who play the part must be able to do everything she could, and at the time "the range of her dancing [was] unequalled"(Barnes).[11][25]

It is notable that this choreography features a few difficult pas de deux, including a spectacular one in the third act, which constitutes the climax of the ballet.[citation needed]


Lead rolesEdit

  • Sylvia – A chaste huntress nymph, loyal to Diana, object of Aminta's desire.
  • Aminta – A simple shepherd boy who is in love with Sylvia. Parallels can be drawn to Endymion, another shepherd who was Diana's young love.
  • Eros – The Greek god of love, focal in the ballet as an object of great worship and scorn.
  • Diana – The Roman goddess of the hunt and chastity. It is at Diana's temple that the bacchanal in the third act takes place.
  • Orion – An evil hunter who stalks Sylvia and kidnaps her.


Minor rolesEdit

  • Hunt attendants—Sylvia's posse of female hunters.
  • Goats – Two goats that are about to be sacrificed as a tribute to Bacchus, but are saved by the commotion caused by Orion.
  • Naiads
  • Dryads
  • Fauns
  • Peasants



Boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god

 —Sir Frederick Ashton, who choreographed Sylvia in 1952.[12]

The libretto of Sylvia is often regarded[by whom?] as one of the ballet's weak points. The simple plot does not allow for much acting nor is it especially gripping. Indeed, when Frederick Ashton rechoreographed the ballet in the 1950s, he tried to rework the story to be more interesting (while still retaining its classical themes) because he recognized this aspect of the ballet as a potential pitfall.[11] Morris simplified the story — for his 2004 production — for the same reasons. He called it, "a big wonderful mishmash of mythology and history", so he changed it to make it more, "clear and beautiful".[26]

Act I: A Sacred WoodEdit

The ballet begins with a scene of worship as creatures of the forest dance before Eros. Aminta, a lowly shepherd, stumbles in on them, disrupting their ritual. Now Sylvia, the object of Aminta's desire, arrives on the scene with her posse of hunters to mock the god of love. Aminta attempts to conceal himself, but Sylvia eventually discovers her stalker and, inflamed, turns her bow towards Eros. Aminta protects the deity and is himself wounded. Eros in turn shoots Sylvia. She is hit, and though not badly wounded, the injury is enough to drive her offstage.

A hunter, Orion, is revealed to also have been watching Sylvia, when he is seen celebrating the unconscious Aminta. Orion conceals himself again as Sylvia returns; this time she is sympathetic towards Aminta. As the huntress laments over her victim, she is kidnapped by Orion and carried off. Peasants grieve over Aminta's figure until a cloaked Eros revives the shepherd. Eros reveals his true identity and informs Aminta of Orion's actions.

Act II: Orion's Island CaveEdit

Captive in Orion's island hideout, Sylvia is tempted by him with jewels and wine to no avail. Sylvia now grieves over Aminta, cherishing the arrow pulled from her breast nostalgically. When Orion steals it from her, Sylvia gets her captor drunk until he is unconscious, whereby she retrieves her arrow and appeals to Eros for help. Sylvia's invocations are not in vain, for Eros quickly arrives and shows his summoner a vision of Aminta waiting for her. The duo depart for the temple of Diana, where Sylvia's love awaits.

Act III: The Sea Coast near the Temple of DianaEdit

Aminta arrives at the temple of Diana to find a bacchanal but no Sylvia, who will soon arrive with Eros. After a few moments of mirth at the reunion, Orion shows up, seeking Sylvia. He and Aminta fight; Sylvia barricades herself in Diana's shrine and Orion attempts to follow. The goddess of the hunt, outraged at this act, smites Orion and denies Aminta and Sylvia congress. Compassionate Eros gives Diana a vision. The goddess reminisces over her own young love of Endymion, also a shepherd. Diana has a change of heart and repeals her decree. Aminta and Sylvia come together under the deities' good will.

Résumé of dances and scenesEdit

Taken from the original 1876 theatrical program of the Paris Opéra.

Act I

  • No. 01 Prélude
  • No. 02 Scène du bois sacré d'Éros
  • No. 03 Le Berger–Entrée d'Aminta
  • No. 04 Grand pas des chasseresses—
—a. Sortie
—b. Valse lente
  • No. 05 Scène
  • No. 06 Cortège rustique
  • No. 07 Scène
  • No. 08 Finale–Entrée du sorcier
Excerpt from Delibes' score: The first few measures of Pizzicato from Sylvia

Act II

  • No. 09 Entr'acte
  • No. 10 La grotte d'Orion
  • No. 11 Pas des Éthiopiens
  • No. 12 Chant bacchique
  • No. 13 Scène et danse de la Bacchante
  • No. 14 Scène finale


  • No. 15 Grand cortège de Bacchus
  • No. 16 Scène
  • No. 17 Danse barcarolle
  • No. 18 Divertissement—
—a. Pizzicato dansée Mlle. Rita Sangalli
—b. Pas d'andante
—c. Pas des esclaves
—d. Variation dansée Mons. Louis Mérante
—e. Galop générale
  • No. 19 Finale–Le temple de Diane
  • No. 20 Apothéose–L'apparition d'Endymion

List of productionsEdit

Premiere Ballet company Choreographer Original leads Notes Source
June 14, 1876 Paris Opera Ballet Mérante Rita Sangalli World premiere [5]
1892 Paris Opera Ballet Mérante Rosita Mauri Sets lost in a fire after 2 years [5]
December 15, 1901 Imperial Ballet Ivanov; Gerdt; Legat Olga Preobrajenska Prompted Diaghilev's emigration from Russia. [11]
1911 Liverpool Empire Theatre Wilhelm Unknown None [5][11]
December 19, 1919 Paris Opera Ballet Staats Carlotta Zambelli None [5][11]
1941 Paris Opera Ballet Lifar Susanne Lorcia; Solange Schwarz None [5][11]
December 1, 1950 New York City Ballet Balanchine Maria Tallchief; Nicholas Magallanes 12-minute version [27]
September 3, 1952 Royal Ballet Ashton Margot Fonteyn; Michael Somes Best-known production [12]
August 20, 1964 American Ballet Theatre Balanchine Sonia Arova; Royes Fernandez Reproduction of 1950. First showing in US. [28][29]
June 9, 1965 Royal Ballet touring section Ashton Margot Fonteyn; Attilio Labis Abridged third act and new variation for Aminta [19]
December 18, 1967 Royal Ballet Ashton with some alterations Nadia Nerina; Gary Sherwood One act [19]
1979 Paris Opera Ballet; Central Ballet of China Darsonval Noella Pontois; Jean-Yves Lormeau; Cyril Atanasoff None [24]
1993 Birmingham Royal Ballet Bintley Miyako Yoshida None [11]
1997 Paris Opera Ballet Neumeier Aurelie Dupont; Manuel Legris This production was subtitled, Three Choreographic Poems on a Mythical Theme and made almost no use of Barbier's plot. It was subsequently also presented by the Hamburg Ballet. [30][31]
2004 The Royal Ballet Ashton Darcey Bussell, Zenaida Yanowsky or Marianela Nunez [18]
April 30, 2004 San Francisco Ballet Morris Yuan Yuan Tan, Yuri Possokhov [15][26]
June 4, 2005 American Ballet Theatre Ashton Paloma Herrera; Angel Corella only 2 acts [12]
February 21, 2019 Houston Ballet Stanton Welch Jessica Collado; Chun Wai Chan; Karina González; Connor Walsh; Melody Mennite; Charles-Louis Yoshiyama A new interpretation of the story that includes the addition of love stories between Artemis and Orion, and Psyche and Eros. <[1]/>

This list mentions only full-length or otherwise significant productions; however, there have been many performances of short excerpts, especially in London.

In popular cultureEdit

In the 1892 novel written by the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith The Diary of a Nobody, Carrie Pooter practises the Sylvia Gavotte on the Pooters' new cottage piano, 'bought on the three years system, manufactured by W. Bilkson (in small letters) from Collard and Collard (in very large letters)'.

In the 1931 Marx Brothers film Monkey Business, Chico Marx plays the pizzicato on the piano, racing against the orchestra, and says, "Hah, I beat you that time!"[32][33]

The theme song from the 1982 television series Knight Rider is based on “Cortège de Bacchus” from the third act.[34]


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  4. ^ a b "Delibes, (Clément Philibert) Léo". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2 ed.). 2001.
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  12. ^ a b c d e f g Hilary Ostlere (June 2005). "Who is Sylvia?". Sylvia Playbill. American Ballet Theatre. pp. 11–16, 55.
  13. ^ "John Hart". OUP. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
  14. ^ Winn, Steven (2004). Mark Morris sounds serious about an 1876 score and his new ballet, 'Sylvia'. Retrieved August 17, 2005.
  15. ^ a b Simpson, Michael Wade (May 3, 2004). "Morris' 'Sylvia' forgoes showy dancing for an old-fashioned, irony-free romance". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved June 29, 2005.
  16. ^ Hirschman, Rebecca. "San Francisco Ballet - Sylvia",, June 2004, accessed January 25, 2012
  17. ^ Percival, John (2004). Celebrating Royally, Vol. 2, No. 41, November 1, 2004. Retrieved January 25, 2012
  18. ^ a b "Sylvia: The Royal Ballet"[permanent dead link]. Retrieved January 25, 2012
  19. ^ a b c Vaughan, David (2004). "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets". Retrieved June 5, 2005.
  20. ^ "Ballet in the Letters of Tchaikovsky" (in Russian). Retrieved March 17, 2010.
  21. ^ a b Warrack, John, Kohlhase, Thomas, Olga Gerdt (2005). The Swan Lake. Retrieved June 29, 2005.
  22. ^ BalletNotes (2001). "Léo Delibes". Retrieved June 11, 2005.
  23. ^ Ingham, Richard; Cross, Jonathan (1998). The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-59666-4.: Google Print. Retrieved July 13, 2005.[page needed]
  24. ^ a b China Daily (2005). Chinese Ballerinas Pirouette for Sylvia Archived March 14, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved July 6, 2005.
  25. ^ Percival, John. An Admirable Restoration. Vol. 2, No. 42, November 8, 2004. Retrieved January 25, 2012
  26. ^ a b Robertson, Allen (2004). "Sylvia". San Francisco Ballet Magazine. Vol. 71 no. 6. pp. 27–31.
  27. ^ Sylvia Pas de Deux,, accessed January 25, 2012
  28. ^ Ballet Theatre Foundation 2003. Sylvia Pas de Deux Archived May 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved July 7, 2005.
  29. ^ The Ballet Archive (1999). "Sylvia Pas de Deux (1950)" Archived May 16, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved July 7, 2005.
  30. ^ Cross, Sheila (2005). Review of 'Sylvia', 'Wuthering Heights' from" Archived December 4, 2005, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved August 9, 2005.
  31. ^ Berman, Janice (2004). "Sylvia Comes to America". San Francisco Ballet Magazine. Vol. 71 no. 6. pp. 32–34.
  32. ^ Matthew B. Tepper (August 19, 2007). "Real Post - One fingered Libetta". UseNet. Retrieved October 25, 2016.
  33. ^ bjimba (January 8, 2005). "Not a cartoon, but…". UseNet. Retrieved October 25, 2016.
  34. ^

External linksEdit

  Media related to Sylvia (ballet) at Wikimedia Commons