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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Concert Review: As the Puppets Dance

The New York Philharmonic presents A Dancer's Dream.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The puppets dance in Petrushka as Alan Gilbert conducts A Dancer's Dream.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 New York Philharmonic.
All the viral videos, cross-marketing and pre-event hype in the last two weeks from the marketing department of the New York Philharmonic failed to capture the brilliance and breadth of imagination present in A Dancer's Dream, seen on Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall. This is the third and most recent collaboration between the orchestra and Doug Fitch, the director and puppeteer behind the Brooklyn-based theater company Giants Are Small.

Although Mr. Fitch's first two shows with the orchestra (2010's Le Grand Macabre and 2011's The Cunning Little Vixen) were operas, A Dancer's Dream explores the world of ballet. A dancer (Sara Mearns from the New York Cty Ballet) is the show's framing device. She bridges two Stravinsky ballet scores (The Fairy's Kiss and Petrushka) with a minimal story-line: her transition into a world of circus magic through the intervention of an icicle-fingered fairy goddess. Accompanying her was the Philharmonic, in a soaring, confident performance of these scores under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert.

The show lived up to the name of Mr. Fitch's company, with clever use of digital video cameras, amplifying Lilliputian stage sets that are pushed about and set up in front of the orchestra. The first ballet, Le Baiser de Fée ("The Fairy's Kiss") featured little model mountains and lakes that create an eerie, placid setting for Stravinsky's wintry music. The camera picked up details of peaks, valleys and wee little trees, melding with close-up images of Ms. Mearns. Miniature buildings added detail to the tiny snowscape.

Sarah Mearns dances in The Fairy's Kiss as Alan Gilbert conducts A Dancer's Dream.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic.
Ms. Mearns was joined by shadow puppeteers who then become part of the dance in their own right. As the music turns celebratory, the choreography (by Karole Armitage) became more elaborate, drawing the viewer into the fantasy and making one wish that the show had no intermission. The coda of the piece was enchantment itself, drawing to a soft close and casting a spell that lingered like the faintest dusting of snow.

The "snowfall" theme continued in the second half with Niege, an atmospheric tone poem for two pianos by the Les Six composer Louis Durey. Ms. Mearns resumed her dance, as digital flakes swept softly down on the giant screen. At its end she was refitted as the puppet Columbine for the ballet to come.

For Petrushka, the stage was transformed into a Russian winter carnival with close-filmed miniature rides, a tiny Ferris wheel and an unfortunate toboggan that kept spilling (and killing) its riders to great comic effect. Orchestra players, clad in fake beards and furry Russian hats shared drank tea from a samovar, got up and danced with their instruments and made use of a "peep show" booth conveniently located near the brass section. Mr. Gilbert took the role of the Magician who brings the titular puppet to life, sporting a spangled frock coat and creating the illusion of his baton floating magically above the orchestra.

Petrushka, Columbine and the Moor were presented by a combination of filmed actors (including Ms. Mearns, and the (tacet) opera singers Eric Owens and Anthony Roth Costanzo) and an assortment  of live-action stick puppets and marionettes manipulated by black-clad operators. The mix of live action and puppetry captured the pathos of little Petrushka's plight, a tragedy in miniature against the bucolic winter setting. The emotional impact of the puppet's death was underlined by Mr. Gilbert, whose leadership of this famous score did not suffer from all the rigamarole accompanying the music.

Mr. Gilbert is to be credited for the final scene, in which he left the orchestra in the capable hands of concertmaster Glenn Dicterow to carry the limp, life-sized Petrushka up the aisles of Avery Fisher Hall. As he turned, holding the puppet's corpse, the living spirit of the doll (played by Mr. Costanzo) appeared and blew a raspberry. It was the perfect, irreverent evening to a magical night of orchestral brilliance and balletic grace.

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