Sylvia opened the 2019-2020 ballet season at La Scala. It is a co-production with the Wiener Staatsballett where it opened in November 2018. There have been no changes to Luisa Spinatelli’s sets and costumes or Manuel Legris’ choreography, which suggests that everyone was pleased with how it turned out in Vienna. However, while the overall evening is extremely pleasing, it is La Scala’s dancers who make it shine, as some aspects of the staging are odd.
Legris gives the dancers lots (and lots) of steps, but it’s maybe impossible to tell this story clearly to a modern audience, most without a classical education: who’s that woman with the bow, why is the man with silver hair sleeping? Legris cleverly tries to help by using the overture as a prologue portraying the huntress Diana (hence the bow) and her passion for Endymion (he of the silver hair). This is how many words the programme ‘synopsis’ needs to sum up the action of the short five-minute prologue:
Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt, sees a double image of herself in Sylvia, who is bound to the goddess through her love of hunting and by a vow of chastity. However, the goddess is in turmoil. Suddenly it is no longer Sylvia that she sees before her, but Endymion, her obsessive lover, whom she has caused to sleep forever so that she can gaze on his youth and beauty without ever breaking her vow. Diana tries to regain control of herself, but Endymion stands before her, full of passion… The goddess surrenders! But soon the sound of horns mercilessly drags her back into reality. Thanks be to the gods, it is Sylvia that now stands before her! Diana seizes her bow. Let the hunt begin.
Got it? I don’t believe that this prologue helps to explain the subsequent action, and possibly confuses things even more with Endymion only appearing again in the final seconds of the ballet, still sleeping, and Diana disappearing for a couple of hours until mid-third act when Sylvia angers her by entering the Temple of Diana. It’s all the fault of Torquato Tasso who wrote his play Aminta in 1573 about the nymph Sylvia, who prefers a good hunt to a smooch with Aminta, until… oh well, never mind. Things were complicated further when librettists Jules Barbier (who wrote the libretto for Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann) and Baron de Reinach (who principally was a banker!) added in Orion, the hunter; Eros, the god of love; and the multi-tasking Diana who in this ballet is linked with not only hunting but the moon and chastity. So it’s a hotch-potch of Roman and Greek mythology, though, presumably, the intention was to mirror Diana’s love for Endymion and Sylvia’s for Aminta. It’s a help to read the (long) synopsis before curtain up.
There is also something that smacks of low budget (or badly-made) scenery, with Spinatelli’s meticulously designed backdrops and wings looking slapdash and shabby, though many of the costumes are gorgeous. Jacques Giovanangeli’s lighting was often unflattering to the sets, highlighting the creases in the cloths, and a lazy follow-spot operator occasionally left the dancers in darkness. It’s unfortunate because Spinatelli’s designs of gauzy, mysterious transparency is ideal for a work of myth and illusion.
There are many highlights, which more than compensate for the baffling plot and the flimsiness of the scenery. Léo Delibes’ wide-ranging music is glorious, from the epic and slightly pompous opening, to the cheery bucolic tunes, to the famous pizzicato variation for Sylvia. The orchestra was brilliantly led by American conductor Kevin Rhodes who was more theatrical and exuberant during the applause than even the lead dancers.
Although Legris has used much of Louis Mérante’s 1876 choreography from the ballet’s Paris premiere, he fills in the gaps with a multitude of steps, and it would be interesting to know the jeté count – there are certainly a lot, and for the whole company too, so it’s a tiring evening for the dancers. But how they dance! The corps de ballet is excellent whether as the fearless huntress companions of Sylvia, the frolicking naiads and fauns, or the peasants enjoying their bacchic feast.
La Scala fields two main casts and they are both strong throughout. Martina Arduino was the opening night Sylvia, followed by Nicoletta Manni. Both are magnificently sure and resilient to the role’s arduous demands – after they enter onstage, the pace never lets up. Manni has an impressive jump, which she can show off continuously in this choreography. She has almost insolent aplomb in many of the trickiest passages, and her long, lithe limbs reveal some exquisite lines. Arduino is softer, especially with her port de bras, and shows more heart, though she too pulls out the big guns for the technical challenges and manages complicated manège sequences with nonchalance. Two very different, but winning, portrayals.
With the fear of running out of adjectives, let’s run down the cast lists. Claudio Coviello as Aminta is a technical marvel and communicative; Marco Agostino in the same role strangely registered less as a character, even though he has a strong jawline and an attractive face, but there were some magical moments, such as when he slows down his pirouettes to a standstill, and an athletic sequence with Manni where they were the mirror image of each other. There were two magnificent Orions: Christian Fagetti then Gabriele Corrado, powerful and assertive both in their dancing and acting and with an abundance of stage presence. There is something odd going on offstage because, gobsmackingly, Corrado, who is one of the company’s most valuable members, doesn’t even have a full-time contract, let alone the role of soloist, yet he consistently performs with excellence in leading roles. I imagine this incongruousness will be corrected soon.
Then we come to Eros. Nicola Del Freo and Mattia Semperboni (who was also superb as the peasant in the opening cast) were formidable. They are very different dancers – Del Freo with legs as strong as steel and secure in every movement; Semperboni, more elastic and with stunning virtuosity – but both brought the house down… thrilling. Endymion, as an added role, has little time to dance as he has only the music of Delibes’s overture and this he divides with Diana, but Corrado and Gioacchino Starace made the most of their limited time. And playing Diana was Maria Celeste Losa who has become one of the theatre’s go-to performers when you want a job well done, as indeed is the unfailingly fine Alessandra Vassallo in the alternative cast.
As the gymnastic Faun, there was Federico Fresi who always gives his all and is exciting to watch, and Valerio Lanadei (also a personable Shepherd on the first night) who was spot-on in his approach to the character and his dance. Other names which should be mentioned are Vittoria Valerio, Gaia Andreanò, Antonella Albano, Emanuela Montanari, Alessia Auriemma, Eugenio Lepera, Camilla Cerulli, Benedetta Montefiore and Domenico Di Cristo, all perfectly cast in smaller, though challenging, roles.
Sylvia, like Legris’ Le Corsaire at La Scala in 2018, is perfect for a company with numerous talents yet few performances, giving many opportunities for everyone to dance, but the opening scene needs rethinking with some stronger mime to explain what is happening, and Spinatelli’s sets deserve a makeover.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.