Arrows fly in Mark Morris’s 2004 Sylvia, as they have in every version of the ballet from Louis Mérante’s 1876 premiere through Frederick Ashton’s 1952 charmer. The plot of Morris’s three-act work, brought to Lincoln Center Festival 2006 by the San Francisco Ballet, deviates very little from the original, especially where arrows are concerned. Sylvia, a nymph dedicated to Diana the virgin huntress, attempts to shoot Eros for making the shepherd Aminta fall in love with her. Aminta, protecting Eros, takes the hit and seems to die. Eros shoots a love arrow at Sylvia, who pretends not to be affected. In the third act, Aminta’s enraged rival, Orion, attempts to desecrate a statue of Diana, so Diana first slays him and then, because Sylvia betrayed her vows, aims her bow at the now united Sylvia and Aminta (at which point Eros throws off his latest disguise—the garb of a pirate with a bevy of dancing slaves—and shows the goddess a vision of herself seducing the human Endymion). As the festivities end, Diana and Eros pose like mirror images, their bows trained on each other but no arrows in sight.
Although Morris uses every bit of Léo Delibes’s tuneful, drama-rich score—including the first-act overture that introduces the principal motifs and the second-act one that focuses on the lovely well-known waltz—he has simplified and freshened the tale, softening 19th-century stereotypes and revealing motivations by subtly echoing actions. When Sylvia returns to the glade for a look at the dead Aminta, she repeats the steps of his love-smitten opening solo; she may not yet realize that Eros’s arrow has found its mark, but we do. When Eros, disguised as a sorcerer, brings Aminta back to life, the shepherd hooks a drowsy arm around his neck, at first mistaking him for Sylvia. Sylvia, kidnapped by Orion, awakens in his cave and does the same to the brutal hunter, briefly thinking he’s Aminta.
Artistic director Helgi Tomasson has built SFB into a company of world-class performers. In the first of several casts, the leading dancers eloquently reveal Morris’s ideas about character. Gonzalo Garcia’s Aminta is no macho hero, but a swoony, love-struck boy, his leaping ardent rather than showy. Yuri Possokhov’s dark-hearted, bad-tempered Orion is subject to moments of tenderness. Yuan Yuan Tan, with her spidery, high-ranging legs, makes a deliciously bold Sylvia—surveying Aminta, hands on hips; swatting Orion away; showing the hunter’s eight-man goon squad (shades of the thugs in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son) how to tromp grapes into miraculously instant wine and helping them get very drunk. In her solo in the last-act pas de deux, her footwork is as delicately poised as Delibes’s pizzicato flurry. (Martin West leads the excellent New York City Opera Orchestra.) As Eros—conceived as an epicene trickster—Jaime Garcia Castilla acts wittily and dances as dartingly as the arrows he wields. Muriel Maffre is an elegantly icy Diana. Moises Martin and Ruben Martin dance buoyantly to usher in Act III, and the corps members, for the most part, perform with relish and conviction.
The production has its longueurs—mostly when the dancers lose their focus in mime passages—but it’s a lovely one. Allen Moyer’s Act I set looks like a garden run wild amid swags of fabric. A giant rock dominates the Act II Sylvia-in-hell scene. And Act III is all pale classical beauty, with a hilltop temple in the distance. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are marvels, especially the villagers’ bright, becoming rags. And Morris brings tenderness and lustiness to the piece with such gems as his amorous mix-ups for four satyrs, four dryads, and four naiads, and his drunken-fratboy revels for Orion’s men.
This very human Sylvia counters its origins in spectacle with a tone as sweet and lilting as Delibes’s music.