New York Philharmonic offers opera amid sunflowers

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At Lincoln Center, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Wilbur Pauley perform in Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen."

NEW YORK - The New York Philharmonic is spending the week playing amid giant sunflowers at Lincoln Center - in one of several firsts. How often, for example, do Philharmonic patrons witness a singer devouring a rabbit onstage?

The occasion is the Janácek opera The Cunning Little Vixen, in music director Alan Gilbert's last local concert of the season. The performance will be repeated Friday and Saturday.

Symphony orchestras have long performed operatic works as special occasions. But as audiences have become inured to the visual element of Metropolitan Opera movie-theater simulcasts, the Philharmonic has upped the ante with fully staged productions of unusual works, last year's being Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.

The orchestra/conductor combination brings extra glamour to Janácek's fun, oddball 1924 opera with a cast headed by major names such as Alan Opie and Isabel Bayrakdarian, who play, respectively, a country forester and the havoc-making fox he captures and pursues once it escapes. (The aforementioned dead rabbit is a love offering to the vixen from her potential mate. Bayrakdarian attacked it lustily.)

In a production created by a theater group named Giants Are Small, Avery Fisher Hall was outfitted with a jagged, asymmetrical thrust stage that allowed singers to commune more directly with the audience. Visually, it had the look of a children's pageant (and was sung in an English translation from the original Czech). The majority of the 30-plus characters are animals, characterized here in fun, makeshift costumes. Insects wore augmented bicycle helmets. A pheasant had a hipster hat with species-identifying feathers. Wings and tails were everywhere.

The Curtis Opera Theatre/Opera Company of Philadelphia collaboration on the same opera in March at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater was a better-integrated experience. When the opera's long orchestral interludes take on the New York Philharmonic's sonic heft (rather than that of a smaller pit orchestra), the resulting grandeur doesn't seem to belong to the rest of the opera.

Also, the opera's larger existential implications were more thoughtfully explored at the Kimmel Center, which had the dimensions of a theater stage, rather than the relatively narrow lip of the Avery Fisher stage in front of the New York Philharmonic.

But the event quality of the New York Philharmonic production is something to envy and study. Any orchestra season needs a few grand, out-of-the-ordinary events. Though Vixen is no longer a stranger to opera houses (the New York City Opera had a production designed by Maurice Sendak), the mere sight of giant sunflowers rising up in back of the Philharmonic gives a welcome anything-can-happen quality to the event.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's fully staged Pulcinella ballet was delightful this spring, but not all that extraordinary. Though the orchestra's season ended with an acclaimed Damnation of Faust with the luxurious casting of opera star Susan Graham, big Berlioz works aren't unusual under chief conductor Charles Dutoit, not to mention visitors such as Simon Rattle.

Everyday brilliance isn't taken for granted. But periodically, an orchestra institution needs to go beyond what it is and make a statement about what it can be.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

The subsequent performances of "The Cunning Little Vixen" are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Information: 212-875-5656 or www.nyphil.org.