The narrative structure of the first act is so taut that forty minutes rush by in a flash. A misty moonlit scene in a sacred wood take us to the shrine of Eros, who manipulates much of the drama. Creatures are dancing but get interrupted by Aminta, a shepherd who loves Sylvia, one of Diana's nymphs. He observes Sylvia and her attendants as they taunt the statue of Eros (Sylvia has renounced love) - and the evil hunter Orion watches too.
Aminta is discovered; Sylvia shoots her arrow at Eros but Aminta protects the statue and is hit instead. Eros avenges the shepherd by shooting Sylvia - and so it goes on, bizarre perhaps, but strangely gripping too. Ashton responds to the vivid score by giving each piece of the story a different colour, propelling the action forward with great momentum. There's never a dull moment, and even the Act III celebration scene, from which Tchaikovsky clearly took inspiration for the wedding scene in The Sleeping Beauty, has a streak of tension in it: Orion tries to part the lovers, Sylvia and Aminta, causing Diana to come out of her temple and kill him.
The music is simply ravishing, and made a huge impact on Tchaikovsky when he saw it in Vienna in 1877, his famous reaction being that he would happily give up Wagner's Ring for Sylvia. Graham Bond drew great sounds out of the ROH orchestra, from the regal prelude to the exoticism of Act II.
As every ballet lover will know, the revival of Sylvia last year also confirmed the stardom of Zenaida Yanowsky, who had for so long been denied many of the major roles because of her height. In tonight's performance she was once again at the peak of her powers in what ought to be a legendary interpretation. She combines strength with grace, musicality with an emotive characterisation. One could almost sense her joy at being given the opportunity to take to the spotlight, which on the basis of her recent Manon and now Sylvia is well deserved.
It's always been difficult to find partners for Yanowsky, and in general David Makhateli did not come near to matching her creamy dancing. In particular he seemed too self-conscious in his solo in Act III, but he undeniably helped to facilitate Yanowsky's brilliant spontaneity at the height of their pas de deux.
Gary Avis was a marvel as Orion, drawing a huge ovation from the audience. His command of the stage was the perfect foil for Yanowsky's magnetism, with their Act II encounter and her escape electric to watch.
As Diana, Gillian Revie made a huge impact in the briefest of parts, ruthlessly hurling herself out of the temple. The multi-faceted character of Eros was brought to life by Joshua Tuifua, consolidating his reputation for dramatic flair.
The corps de ballet revelled in Ashton's huge canvas, with the divertissements of the final act providing numerous of our up-and-coming-dancers with the chance to shine.
But the evening was Yanowsky's, an absolute knock-out performance which demands that she be given even more leading roles in the future.