Peter and the Wolf, Guggenheim, New York

What happens to the duck?

That profound question has always vexed me when grappling with Peter and the Wolf. You remember, Prokofiev gave his fable a presumably happy ending. Peter, labelled a “young pioneer” in the Russia of 1936, has outfoxed the evil wolf and sent him on his way to prison, a.k.a. the zoo. Most of the other animals join the boy in a triumphal parade. And, just as the final cadence looms, the narrator says, “If you listen very carefully, you will hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.”

So does the poor oboe-quacker survive? Given the undertones of cruelty in the tale, it seems unlikely. In any case, the question was left unanswered at the festive Guggenheim last weekend, where the work became a static art installation with lively musical accompaniment.

The accompaniment, led by George Manahan, was splendid. A chamber ensemble from Juilliard made the score snap, crackle, sigh and pop.

Problems arose, however, with the installation. Jason Hackenwerth festooned the Peter B Lewis Theater – designed, not incidentally, by Frank Lloyd Wright – with six massive semi-abstract sculptures intricately constructed with balloons. Thousands of balloons. These multi-coloured globes were supposed to represent characters. They spun gently above our heads, spotlit at seemingly appropriate moments. Significantly, Hackenwerth considers his airy creations “a metaphor for the human condition”.

Seated at the side of the stage, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi recounted Prokofiev’s bucolic story in casual, folksy tones. He turned mock-actorly when he turned the grouchy Grandfather’s valedictory into a kvetchy rebuke: “End vot if Peter didn’t ketch de volf? Vot den? Vot den?”

The whole thing was mildly amusing, also blessedly brief. Still, it never reflected, much less reinforced, the drama at hand. This was just a kiddie-concert played under a canopy of artful floats. The little natives seemed understandably restless.

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