NEW YORK - If ever an opera could cause brain damage, it's Gyorgy Ligeti's

Le Grand Macabre.

If ever the destruction of gray matter could be utterly pleasurable, it was Thursday at Avery Fisher Hall, when the New York Philharmonic staged this bizarre end-of-the-world comedy - an event that may signify several important cultural turning points.

The clangorous, atonal music, which used lots of nonmusical instruments, such as car horns and ringing phones, played to a sold-out house, two thirds of which wasn't regular subscribers. Not just a marketing triumph, the production ended with a rock-concert roar.

The project initially seemed like an Alan Gilbert death wish; instead, the Philharmonic's still-fledging music director stands to have his profile raised considerably by Macabre (which runs through Saturday). Philadelphia bass-baritone Eric Owens - in a rare starring role for his voice type - navigated the challenging score and eccentric, whimsical staging with not just comic mastery, but formidable presence that might surprise even his fondest admirers. Even when his music was disjointed, his rich vocal tone was undiminished, his diction was superb, and his stage instincts were flawless. Time and again, you asked, "Is this really happening?"

The opera depicts a surreal, absurd, Brueghelesque world being terrorized by Owens' character, the dictator Nekrotzar, who predicts everyone will die at midnight. The New York Philharmonic was onstage, though framed by an overhead oval screen radiating stylized sun-like rays, on which was seen, in the words of stage director Douglas Fitch, "live animation."

A doll-house-size stage sat in the corner, manipulated by puppeteers and surrounded by high-def video cams that rendered diorama-like storybook images onto the screen - though with a depth of field that accommodated visual interventions like Owens' head appearing in the middle of it all, dwarfing all around it as he surveyed the terrain. This visual element had the charm of garage theater, as well as the clumsiness.

Fitch also utilized the entire hall: The chorus was relocated to high, rear tiers, and house lights blinked as the opera's world went particularly haywire. The final flourish had Owens in a down-the-aisle processional, wearing a long robe and high headdress and surrounded by twirling banners, in a wickedly funny homage to the opening of The Lion King.

It was a great theatrical package. But a great opera? For all the clarity of intent Gilbert brought to the music, and though the singers were game for whatever the opera threw at them, Le Grand Macabre is mainly a platform for imaginative, accomplished theater personnel, as well as a healthy provocation for audiences. The experimental, splintered score wants nothing to do with greatness (or even momentum) - so much so that the first act is quite unsatisfying. Act II's final 20 minutes show you the great composer that Ligeti was. But Le Grand Macabre is destined to occupy a cultural niche similar to Alfred Jarry's King Ubu plays - important to experience periodically but not regularly, if only because most of us don't have that many brain cells to spare.