The original plot and setting of Sylvia is arcadian: wildly romantic – and hardly realistic. It's a story of nymphs, gods and love the causality of which is elusive to a modern-day understanding, a story that could be turned into a beautiful ballet and still be a flop. But it isn't so with David Bintley's production for Birmingham Royal Ballet. He gives the ancient story a contemporary framework and with Sue Blane's wonderful designs makes it thoroughly enticing.

Momoko Hirata as Sylvia and Joseph Caley as Amynta © Bill Cooper
Momoko Hirata as Sylvia and Joseph Caley as Amynta
© Bill Cooper

Middle-aged and disillusioned with his former trade, Eros, the God of Love, has assumed a new role as gardener for the philandering Count Guiccioli who won't pass up any opportunity to chase a skirt - not even during the celebrations of his own wedding anniversary. The party, organised by a pair of bold and gloriously campy fashion victims, is beautifully set out in a white marquee, adorned with fairy lights and Eros' expertly presented rose bushes. As the marital strife escalates and threatens to smother the budding love of the couple's servants (Amynta and Sylvia), Eros takes them on a fantastic journey into the distant past.

Like his CoppéliaSylvia is a production that offers plenty of opportunity for character acting, and this matinee' s cast filled their roles wonderfully. From Tyrone Singleton (who later makes an appearance as a magnificently wild, uncivilised Orion in the guise of a loinclothed, long-haired, caveman-like Tarzan) as the ever-flirting Count to Céline Gittens, as his wife, first painfully rejected by her spouse, then re-introduced as the confident, strong-willed (in a positive sense) and slightly merciless Goddess of the hunt. Her every step, her gestures, the way she held her head – radiating divine authority – her leaps and demanding mien, elevated by Delibes' Wagnerian, brass-heavy music, were truly fit for a deity.

Eros, on the other hand, appeared as the benevolent counterpart of Mozart's string-pulling Don Alfonso, a man of the world in 1920s attire with a gentle, knowing air. While fairly little dancing is involved for Mathias Dingman in this role, he played the god brilliantly in all his guises, be it as a gardening bespectacled Cupid (he finally sports a tiny pair of wings), or as an – excellent – rough, slave trading, one-legged pirate captain.

His constant focus is Amynta (Joseph Caley), blinded by Diana for watching her and her posse, and in search of the abducted Sylvia. He is the only character to remain in his "framework story" costume, a valet's suit that constantly retains the link to assumed reality, and that suffers notably as the search for his beloved continues. With the symbolic blindfold, he passes through the scenes like a sleepwalker, an image strongly echoing Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream in its half real, half dream-like quality.

Céline Gittens as Diana and Mathias Dingmam as Eros © Bill Cooper
Céline Gittens as Diana and Mathias Dingmam as Eros
© Bill Cooper
Whilst his performance as an innocent, loving youth was solid and the moment his sight is restored and he finally sees Sylvia again intensely touching despite its shortness, he clearly stood out as the shadow of "his" Sylvia Momoko Hirata. Her acting was fabulous, both as meek governess of the Count and Countess' children and as nymph, torn between her vow and her feelings, desperate to escape Orion, her dancing was spectacular. All her movements had a lightness and smoothness to them that made the ensemble (who were very good indeed) look almost wood-like. Her arabesques seemed to extend endlessly, her bourrés seemed to float, her port-de-bras were exquisite. Trying to escape from Orion in a formidable clashing duet that highlighted the extremes of both roles, she transformed into a mere leaf shaken by the wind, entirely weight- and power-less, something so delicate that it could be lifted about by the rough rascal with only one arm and in seemingly effortless, sustained elevations.

She danced impeccable solos and beautiful pas de deux with her beloved; the most outstanding, deeply touching moment the afore-mentioned very brief scene in which Amynta regains his sight. It was awash with emotions: his innocent, boundless joy at seeing Sylvia again, delighting in her embrace; her movements incredibly expressive, desperately, almost painfully longing to hold her Amynta, yet pulling back again and again, held back by a virginal nymph's vow to her goddess.

Her display crowned a sweeping performance that, though not entirely perfect – the final pose in her pas de deux with Caley seemed a little rugged, and the orchestra had a brief dragging episode just in the most emotional of moments – was, minor blips aside, wonderful. It is a production with a lovely set, from the marquee to Orion's cave to the pirate ship that whizzes past on the shore in full sail, only to make a sharp turn, poke its bowsprit onto the stage from the side and spit out a bunch of colourfully clad, romping pirates. It is also, and perhaps surprisingly, credible in its message of love as an all-governing force, interspersed with refreshing, comic scenes, and the production sends you back out into the afternoon sunshine in high spirits.