The story of how "La Sylphide" came to be is an interesting one. On March 12, 1832, the first version of La Sylphide premiered at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra with choreography by Filippo Taglioni and music by Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer. Taglioni designed the work as a showcase for his daughter Marie. The ballet's libretto was written by tenor Adolphe Nourrit. Nourrit's scenario was loosely based on a story by Charles Nodier, "Trilby",(not to be confused with George DuMaurier's novel, which was filmed as "Svengali")but swapped the genders of the protagonists — a goblin and a fisherman's wife in Nodier; a sprite and a farmer in the ballet.
In 1836, La Sylphide was choreographed anew by the Danish balletmaster August Bournonville with music by Herman Severin Løvenskiold. Bournonville had intended to present a revival of Taglioni's original version in Copenhagen with the Royal Danish Ballet, but the Paris Opera demanded too high a price for Schneitzhoeffer's score. In the end, Bournonville mounted his own production, which included more choreography for the male dancer. The premiere took place on November 28, 1836. The Bournonville version has been danced in its original form by the Royal Danish Ballet ever since.
Taglioni's choreography has since been lost, so the version choreographed by Bournonville is the only version known to have survived. (According to the Bolshoi commentator, the French version was dropped from the repertory in the 1840's after a dancer was killed when her costume caught fire.)
The ballet is set in Scotland. It opens on the morning James (Vyacheslav Lopatin) is going to marry Effie (Anna Rebetskaya). However, he has been dreaming instead of an alluring airy spirit. He wakes and finds it is not a dream, as the beautiful Sylph (Ekaterina Krysanova) is indeed in the room with him. He tries to catch her, but she easily eludes him and flies away up the chimney. James asks his friends if they have seen the spirit, but they mockingly suggest he is "touched" or feverish.
Enter the wedding party. James is displeased to find that the group includes Madge (Irina Zibrova), the local witch. She offers to tell fortunes, and, when she prophecies that James loves another, and that Effie will instead marry his rival, Gurn (Denis Savin), James throws Madge out.
While the others go off to prepare, the Sylph reappears and pledges her love for James. After some persuasion, James gives in and kisses her. The Sylph disappears again when the others come back, but returns, invisible to all but James, during the party, and distracts him. When she snatches the wedding ring from James and puts it on her own finger, then flees, James pursues her into the woods. The wedding party breaks up in confusion when it is discovered that the groom is missing.
The second act opens with Madge and members of her coven brewing a revenge charm, which involves soaking a sheer white scarf in the contents of her cauldron.
Then, James and the Sylph enter. They dance, and are joined by a party of her sister sylphs, who also dance. In the variations, James continues to try to grasp the Sylph, who continually floats out of his reach. As the sylph's revelry moves to another part of the forest, Gurn enters, searching for James. Madge persuades him to give up the search, and propose to Effie instead. Effie accepts his offer, and they depart.
Madge encounters James, and gives him the enchanted scarf, telling him that if the Sylph wears it, he will be able to touch her. James persuades the Sylph to accept his gift, and he puts it on her. They embrace passionately, but only for a moment, as the Sylph shudders and dies.
Sorrowfully, her sisters enter and lift her lifeless form. Suddenly, a joyful wedding procession led by Effie and Gurn crosses the glade. James is stunned. Madge directs his gaze heavenward; he sees the Sylph borne aloft by her sisters. James collapses. Madge exults over his prostrate body, and the curtain falls.
This was a very pretty ballet, with a comparatively simple setting by Bolshoi standards: a handsome great hall interior for Act One, and a nice forest clearing for Act Two. The sylphs all have elegant variations of the basic costume, while the humans all have stylized Highland dress. The choreography (by Johan Kobborg, after Bournonville) is pretty rather than flashy, with much of the first act being based on Scottish country dancing as modified for ballet. Ekaterina Krysanova was lovely as the Sylph, seeming indeed to be as light and flexible as air. Vyacheslav Lopatin, as James, danced with great speed and power, his feet sometimes actually visible only as a blur to us. The other dancers were up to the high Bolshoi standards, with excellent precision and expression.
Like others of the older ballets, "La Syphilde" isn't frequently being seen in American regional repetoire, so we were very glad to have had this opportunity to see it.
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