Brilliantly bolstered and boosted, Stanton Welch’s new Sylvia enlivens and enhances the 1876 original for an evening of pure theatrical enchantment.
Although its uninspiring plot saw Sylvia almost forgotten, Léo Delibes’ gorgeous music and the ballet’s charming Arcadian setting attracted choreographer Frederick Ashton to revive the work for The Royal Ballet in 1952, finally popularising Sylvia with a production that has been cherished in the ensuing decades.
While “new” productions often just involve a bit of tweaking and updating here and there, this 2019 co-production from Houston Ballet and The Australian Ballet has the status and significance of a major, original new work. Drawing from the same well of Greek mythology, Welch has flanked Sylvia with another two strong female characters, entwining the tales so deftly that it is hard to believe that the enhanced storytelling was not always there.
To aid theatregoers in their approach to this Australian premiere, foyer attendants wearing pastoral costumes distribute a handy colour-coded guide before the show. A study of the synopsis pays dividends while watching the performance. Not only are there around 30 named characters, but some of the early plot points zip by quite briskly. The inclusion of two intervals in the 145-miniute running time brings ongoing chances to study the form.
Encompassing the realm of Olympians, demi-gods and mortals, Sylvia is linked by a prescient theme of female power. Goddess Artemis loves Orion but is cruelly tricked into killing him by her jealous twin brother, Apollo. Love god Eros is sent to kill beautiful human Psyche, but quickly falls in love and marries her. Sylvia leaves Artemis’ army, falling instantly in love with The Shepherd thanks to a spell cast by Eros.
The intricacy of Welch’s work showcases a huge cast of dancers across a range of ages. A key feature of Welch’s choreography is his nod to classical styles and patterns, particularly those related to Greek dance or imagery. The various pas de deux are inventively conceived; if deliberately light on spectacle for spectacle’s sake, they are high on intriguing characterful details.
Welch’s vision for fluid storytelling is aided by elaborate projections from Wendall K. Harrington, which play across a vast layered setting designed by Jérôme Kaplan. From flowering fields to fiery furnaces, the animated projections conjure multiple locations as well as creating special effects, such as the trajectory of arrows fired by Artemis’ army. Extensive use of projections constricts the lighting design of Lisa J. Pinkham to relatively dim tones; key action remains clear, yet background details are sometimes difficult to discern.
The backdrop itself is a series of textured brown panels, giving the sense of peering into a portal torn into the earth. Given the scale of the production, and its perfect fit in the State Theatre, it is hard to imagine how Sylvia will fit on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre for the Sydney season.
Kaplan supports the storytelling with signature colours for the three female lead characters and their lovers. In the absence of tutus, women wear beautiful flowing ankle-length gossamer gowns or sport smart metallic tunics that are crisp yet practical. The four playful Fauns spin the fringing worn on their legs to great effect.
Maestro Nicolette Fraillon, music director of The Australian Ballet, leads Orchestra Victoria in an exquisite performance of Delibes’ delightful score, achieving particular success with the gentle pastoral sequences. The fine delicacy of these softer passages leaves room for resounding brass to herald the arrival of warriors. Such is the quality of the musical performance, it would readily provide a satisfying evening of entertainment in its own right.
Ako Kondo delivers another delightful lead performance, infusing the noble Sylvia with a charming sense of amusement. Kondo is at her very best as Sylvia falls in love with The Shepherd, dancing to “Valse Lente” in a sweetly comical pas de deux for the ages.
As The Shepherd, Kevin Jackson begins with rather stilted movement, performing Nijinsky-like moves to portray the young man’s melancholy. In a twist of gender expectations, The Shepherd defers to the bravery and invention of Sylvia, and Jackson takes on this supporting aspect of the role with customary grace.
In a clever and very appropriate piece of guest casting, the Older Shepherd is played by David McAllister, whose long-term reign as Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet gives this fatherly role a special significance.
Robyn Hendricks conveys the serious command and centred focus of Artemis, keeping a sense of power with the young goddess even when she is influenced by romance. Adam Bull makes the most of the relatively small role of Orion, sadly dispatched in act one, returning to the stage at the end of the night for a dreamy final pas de deux with Hendricks.
In her first Melbourne opening night performance since becoming a Senior Artist, Benedicte Bemet is at her most charmingly winsome as capricious maiden Psyche. Pretty in pink, Bemet effortlessly captures the serene sense of beauty that draws such jealousy from Aphrodite, making a striking impact from her first solo.
In another standout performance, arguably his best to date, Marcus Morelli is in electric form as mischievous love god Eros, dancing with soaring yet expertly controlled athletic power and actively engaging the audience with his delightful character.
Natasha Kusen catches the eye as vainglorious Aphrodite, lacing the malevolence of the insecure goddess with the cat-like smile of a soap opera villainess. Sporting a vivid blonde wig, Jake Mangakahia smoothly captures the entitled arrogance of handsome god Adonis.
Special mention to the four Fauns, Yichuan Wang, Cameron Holmes, Shaun Andrews and Drew Hedditch, each of whom not only dances with exciting athleticism but also infuses their role with distinctive character.
A gift from the Gods of theatre, Sylvia is a special work that is set to amuse and delight appreciative audiences.
Sylvia plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 September 2019.
Sylvia plays at Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 8 – 23 November 2019.
Read the Melbourne casting for Sylvia.
Photos: Jeff Busby