The Houston Ballet’s latest world premiere, Sylvia, is a sweeping pageant of love, loss, and jealousy with a few sword fights, mythical gods, and bawdy fauns thrown in for good measure.
The three-act story ballet is Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s reworking of the tale of Sylvia, a warrior, and the man she falls in love with, a shepherd. That’s the original story. For the Houston Ballet production, Welch added the romantic entanglements of Artemis and Orion, along with those of Psyche and Eros to the narrative. It’s duty versus desire for each.
Sylvia was first performed in 1876, to little acclaim. The music was beautiful, but the production failed to capture an audience. There had been a few reworkings over the years, but none became part of the standard ballet repertoire.
Welch had reportedly been toying with the idea of revising Sylvia for several years but found translating the previous storyline to the stage troublesome. Once he elevated some of the previously minor characters and added elements of Greek mythology, the problems were solved and plans for a Houston Ballet production began.
Welch collaborated with three talented designers for Sylvia—Jérôme Kaplan for sets and costumes, Lisa J. Pinkham for lighting, and Wendall K. Harrington for projections.
Each component was very much dependent on the other. The costumes couldn’t be completed until the choreography was more or less set, the projections had to be paired with the lighting and set. A tweak to one often required a change to another. Working up to opening night, the team created a seamless, satisfying production. (Work hasn’t exactly stopped. Sylvia will be presented later this year at the Australian Ballet, the co-producer of the production, and depending on the reception the show receives in Houston, additional refinements might be made.)
One thing Welch didn’t change was Léo Delibes’ famous score. In fact, Léo Delibes’ score is as much a character in Sylvia as any of the central figures. Under Houston Ballet Music Director Ermanno Florio and guest conductor Jonathan McPhee, the orchestra gives a notable performance, with several standout passages by the string section.
Karina Gonzáles and Connor Walsh appear as Sylvia and the shepherd on opening night. (They share the roles with Nozomi Iijima and Ian Casady.) Together, the pair is enchanting on stage. She’s been put under a spell and has instantly fallen in love with the shepherd. Gonzáles is wonderfully innocent and insistent as she pursues the slightly bewildered shepherd.
She puts his hand on her hip; he pulls away. She puts his other hand on her other hip; he pulls away. He turns to go only to find her blocking his way, batting her eyelashes expectantly. He tries again to leave and finds she’s wrapped his arm around her. He eventually stops resisting and accepts what the audience knew all along—the two belong together.
A fiendish river god and revengeful warrior plot to keep the two apart, but Sylvia deftly picks up her sword to defend her beloved.
Artemis, performed by Jessica Collado, and Orion, performed by Chun Wai Chan, have a more tragic storyline. A demi-god, Artemis is tricked into killing Orion and faces eternity without him. (Yuriko Kajiya and Christopher Coomer share the roles.)
Psyche, performed by Melody Mennite, and Eros, performed by Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, also suffer disappointment and despair. (Mónica Gómez and Oliver Halkowich share the roles.)
Psyche, a mortal, marries Eros, a god who’s masked his identity in order to be with her. Psyche can’t resist temptation and tries to unmask him despite his explicit warnings. Enraged, he leaves and returns to the world of the gods.
Psyche appeals to Aphrodite for help. The goddess tasks Psyche to retrieve a box from the underworld. Aphrodite warns her not to open the box, but Psyche is again unable to resist temptation and opens the box, falling dead when she does.
As he does throughout the ballet, Welch inserts a bit of humor into the scene. After Psyche falls dead, her slack body becomes a bit of a prop. She’s first spun one way and then another as her family examines her. When Eros comes on the scene, Psyche’s limp body is passed around from person to person as he and her family frantically search for a way to resuscitate her. Finally, Artemis brings Psyche back to life and she runs off with Eros.
A group of mischievous fauns act as a Greek chorus of sorts throughout Sylvia. Taunting and mocking the characters as they fall in and out of love, the irreverent, derisive, and scornful fauns bring a bit of bawdy fun to the stage. (Their costumes, pantlegs made of swinging fringe, are among the show’s most effective.) They swagger and strut with abandon, eschewing the controlled and formal movements of the other characters much to the delight of the audience.
Happily, Karina Gonzáles and Connor Walsh are on stage for the bulk of the satisfying third act. Welch manages to cram quite a bit of storytelling into the final act and resolves the various elements of the narrative for well-deserved happy endings all around.
Thru March 3. Tickets start at $35. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.