Delibes, Léo – Sylvia ou La Nymphe de Diane (Suite from the ballet)
Ballet in three acts (1875-6)
after Torquato Tasso’s Aminta (1573)
Who could have imagined, early in his illustrious career, that Léo Delibes would become one of the most beloved composers of the nineteenth century? A mediocre student at the Paris Conservatoire who did not even bother to apply for the Prix de Rome, by the end of his life he had served as professor of composition at that same institution and his music was being performed from Moscow to San Francisco, with all musical capitals in between. Even today, though not exactly a household name (except in ball-et circles), some of his music has become so familiar as to earn a place in the collective unconscious of western civilization, mainly owing to three outstanding works from his later career: the ballets Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876) and the opera Lakmé (1883).
Coppélia, Delibes’ first great triumph, was preceded by no fewer than twenty other works for the stage, beginning with a “lyrical asphyxiation” of 1856 entitled Deux sous de charbon (“Two groats of charcoal”) and continuing with a steady series of ope-rettas, opéras-comiques, and divertissements. Though none of these was particularly successful, his fortunes began to change in 1864, when he was appointed chorus master at the Paris Opéra and found himself in close contact with the leading figures of the world’s musical theater. The immediate upshot of this was a ballet La Source (1866), for which Delibes, in collaboration with Louis Minkus, supplied music for the world-famous choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon (1821-1870). The piece scored a great hit with the public, and Delibes was invited to work with Saint-Léon on a sequel, Coppélia, that would eventually become, along with Adolphe Adam’s Giselle, the most enduring French ballet of the century.
The success of Coppélia made Delibes a “preferred risk” among French ballet composers, and when the time came to inaugurate the newly-built Palais Garnier (the pre-sent Paris Opéra) in 1876 Delibes was chosen to produce a new score to a ballet scenario by Jules Barbier and Baron Jacques de Reinach. By the time of the first rehearsal, on 15 August 1875, only a third of the music had been composed; the rest of the score arose during rehearsal in close conjunction with the choreographer and lead dancer, Louis Mérante, and the twenty-seven-year-old prima ballerina Rita Sangalli. Delibes indulgently adjusted his music to meet the whims of the choreographer, with the result that the work forms an unusually tight unity between music, libretto, and dance. …
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