Music Review: ‘A Dancer’s Dream’ Includes Orchestra in Stravinsky Ballets

June 28th, 2013

Richard Termine for The New York Times

A Dancer’s Dream The conductor Alan Gilbert, center, and Sara Mearns in this New York Philharmonic production, which includes “Petrushka” and “Le Baiser de la Fée,” at Avery Fisher Hall.

In the original 1911 scenario of the ballet “Petrushka,” with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Fokine, the opening scene takes place in the bustling St. Petersburg square during the Shrovetide Fair. There are rowdy crowds, street hawkers, drunken revelers and puppet shows.

For the New York Philharmonic’s production of “Petrushka” that opened on Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall, part of an ambitious season-ending program called “A Dancer’s Dream,” the director and designer Doug Fitch did not have a corps de ballet to enact the scene. Still, he had very willing substitutes: the Philharmonic players.

In this “Petrushka” the musicians, many wearing Russian hats and jackets, played the piece and also the rowdy crowd participating in the festivities, stomping their boots in unison with the downbeats and swaying to the swings of the music like the orchestral equivalent of a wave at a baseball stadium. On a screen above the orchestra, there were live video close-ups of groups of players enjoying tea from a samovar or passing around plates of caviar on crackers. With every drum roll, the players stood up and switched seats: an ultimate musical chairs.

Then, suddenly, the conductor Alan Gilbert, wearing a long, satiny coat, leapt from the podium and turned to the audience, taking the role of the magician who introduces the three puppets he controls (or so he thinks), who become the main characters of the story: Petrushka, a clown; Columbine, a ballerina; and a mysterious Moor.

This is the third collaboration between Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Fitch, who, with the video director Edouard Getaz, are founders of the production company Giants Are Small, which combines puppetry and video. The first project was the Philharmonic’s staging of Ligeti’s apocalyptic opera, “Le Grand Macabre,” in 2010. The following year they collaborated on a production of Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen.” These programs were not just high points in Mr. Gilbert’s tenure as music director of the Philharmonic, but inspiring examples of how an American orchestra can take a creative leap and reinvent itself.

With “A Dancer’s Dream” Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Fitch took on two Stravinsky ballet scores: “Petrushka” and “Le Baiser de la Fée” (“The Fairy’s Kiss”). Mr. Fitch chose a metaphorical approach. Though always imaginative and involving, “A Dancer’s Dream” lacked some focus and was a little overstuffed with imagery. Those who did not read Mr. Fitch’s note in the program might have found the narrative confusing, especially in “Le Baiser de la Fée.”

Mr. Fitch essentially puts aside the original scenario of this 1928 ballet, drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s “Ice Maiden,” a haunting story of an ice fairy who imprints her kiss on a baby boy after his mother dies in a winter storm. Years later, when the boy is a popular young man about to marry his sweetheart, the ice maiden returns in the guise of a Gypsy and claims him.

In a recent interview Mr. Fitch explained that he was inspired by Stravinsky’s score, the composer’s homage to Tchaikovsky, who Stravinsky suggested was himself possessed by a creative muse. Mr. Fitch turns “Le Baiser de la Fée” and the entire “Dancer’s Dream” program into a metaphoric fantasy about the transformative power of music and the allure of dance.

In this production, with choreography by Karole Armitage, we see the video image of an icy fairy who entices a member of the audience to rise and walk onstage: this seated woman is the superb dancer Sara Mearns, a principal with the New York City Ballet. The character she portrays is a young woman irresistibly induced to dance.

There are enthralling episodes when Ms. Mearns dances with graceful movements tinged with frenzied compulsion. In a later scene she is joined by a mysterious figure who is revealed to be a dashing young man: the woman’s lover, played by the charismatic City Ballet principal Amar Ramasar. In a resonant touch, the ice fairy in the video is also played by Ms. Mearns, in eerie makeup, which suggests that it is the young woman’s inner compulsion that draws her to dance.

Still, Mr. Fitch’s approach becomes diffuse, whereas the original Andersen tale is grim and rich. In a short entr’acte after intermission, the pianists Eric Huebner and Steve Beck play excerpts from “Neige” (“Snow”), a sardonic, bristling four-handed piano suite from 1918 by the French composer Louis Durey. Mr. Fitch turns it into a dance to show Ms. Mearns completing her transformation into a ballerina. By the end she is costumed as Columbine, ready for her role in “Petrushka.” I can see why Mr. Fitch’s concept needed this transition, but the piece seems awkwardly inserted into the program.

Once “Petrushka” begins, though, you can put aside the metaphor and revel in the exhilarating production. The story has built-in ambiguity, as the three puppets seemingly come to life and engage in a love triangle with a fatal result. That ambiguity is conveyed here ingeniously: sometimes we see the characters as hand puppets; sometimes we see them portrayed by dancers.

But in engrossing filmed segments the great bass-baritone Eric Owens, lolling about in an exotic room, portrays the Moor, and the excellent young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is the hapless Petrushka, hopelessly in love with Columbine. The inside joke is that two great singers play silent roles. If you want to know why in their very different ways Mr. Owens and Mr. Costanzo are such compelling vocal artists, just watch them claim the screen in these filmed segments.

Mr. Gilbert drew plush, colorful playing from the Philharmonic in “Le Baiser de la Fée,” though this evening, with so many demands placed upon the musicians, was not conducive to crackling execution. This was especially so in “Petrushka,” where the players were part of the show and had much else to do. Still, the performances were spirited and spontaneous.

And it was delightful to see the skilled members of the Philharmonic so eagerly embracing the chance to act, stomp and ham it up. At one point in “Petrushka,” the violist Rebecca Young did a little Russian dance, juggling colored handkerchiefs and twirling about exuberantly. Is this the future of the American orchestra? Let’s hope so.

The New York Philharmonic’s final performance of “A Dancer’s Dream” is on Saturday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; (212) 875-5656, nyphil.org.

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