The actual ballet had a checkered history down the years and Ashton primarily restructured it for the Royal Ballet for his muse Margot Fonteyn to have a whacking big star role in. He tinkered with it through the years and his lack of confidence in it resulted in only Sylvia's third act solo still being performed, although the score has always been liked in concert.
Ashton's production got a full restaging in 2004 by the Royal Ballet for Ashton's centenary celebrations and, although still not in the first flight of ballets, the lead role has been personal successes for Darcey Bussell (who coached the lead ballerinas for this revival), Zenaida Yanowsky and Marianela Nunez in subsequent years. Christopher Newton, who staged the 2004 revival, almost had to start from scratch as very little archive material remained from Ashton's 1952 production. Maybe that is what accounts for the slightly flimsy feel to the ballet? However that said, it was a perfectly pleasant diversion with many opportunities for our Sylvia to shine and as it was danced by Lauren Cuthbertson, shine she did!
The plot is fairly paper-thin - Sylvia is one of the goddess Diana's huntress nymphs and she is loved from afar by the shepherd Aminta who at a shrine to Eros strays too far and is shot by the angry Sylvia. The statue of Eros turns into the real god and he too shoots an arrow at the huntress, slightly wounding her but making her realize her mistake in hurting someone who loved her. Unknown to her, another hunter Orion has also been stalking her and before she can revive Aminta, Orion carries her off to his lair. But fear not! Eros revives Aminta to help bring her back.
At Orion's lair, he attempts to win Sylvia over with jewels but she pines for Aminta, cradling the arrow she received from the gods which proves his love. When Orion steals it from her she pretends to carouse with the hunter and his minions until they are all passed out drunk and after a quick prayer to Eros he rescues her in his magical boat!
Back at the temple of Diana, Aminta is reunited with Sylvia during a festival for Bacchus but Orion catches up with them and when Sylvia flees into the temple he attempts to follow her. Angered by his actions, Diana appears and fells him with another arrow. But Diana then refuses Sylvia to love Aminta as she is one of her huntresses... luckily Eros is on hand to remind her that she too loved a human once and all ends happily.
The scenario is real wing-and-a-prayer stuff but was danced with such conviction and mounted in such a simple way that you could not help but like it, helped in part by Delibes' music - even Tchaikovsky said his own SWAN LAKE score paled into insignificance in comparison. I think Tchaikovsky was overstating the issue but it is a delightful work and includes a genuine entry in Ballet's Greatest Hits, the Pizzicato solo...
Lauren Cuthbertson was marvellous in the lead role - there always seem to be hidden depths to this dancer so her strength in the first act, her cunning in the second act and her loving in the third all seem to come from a very genuine source, like the best ballerinas she is an actress as well as a dancer.
None of the other roles really allow for much investigation but Reece Clarke was very nice in his tiny Hellenic skirt and made the most of his solo in the last act. As said before, Ashton really just wanted to show off the lead ballerina so Aminta spends most of the first act lying wounded on the floor, disappears for the second, and is lovestruck in the third!
All in all, a nice way to end a year of productions from the Royal Ballet.