With the right singers and musicians, opera doesn't need sets and costumes to be convincing.
British baritone Simon Keenlyside, soprano Angela Denoke and London's Philharmonia orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen gave a searing concert version of Berg's "Wozzeck" on Monday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
The cast wore simple clothes, mostly black with some white, that would not have been out of place had they been listeners in the auditorium. The only props were a few bottles. There was no need to depict houses, streets and woods.
These singers acted with such conviction that the 90-minute, three-act performance was riveting from start to finish. Keenlyside, who completed a run Saturday as Prospero in Thomas Ades' "The Tempest" at the Metropolitan Opera, commanded the stage. Among those in the seats participating in the huge ovation at the end were baritone Thomas Hampson and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung.
"Wozzeck," one of the great 20th-century operas, is based on Georg Buechner's play and depicts a tale of a soldier's alienation and descent into madness that culminates in the murder of his faithless girlfriend Marie.
With dark red suspenders, his shoulders slightly hunched, Keenlyside resembled Len Cariou's Sweeney Todd. His voice, inflection and movement combined to create an indelible portrayal, his mannerisms becoming increasingly agitated as the taunting from the blustery Captain (tenor Peter Hoare) and nasty Doctor (bass Tijl Faveyts) took its toll. By the time he saw Marie dancing with Drum Major (tenor Hubert Francis), Wozzeck's rage seemed to be a natural byproduct.
Instead of stabbing Marie to death, he hugged the life out of her — and Denoke walked offstage as if a ghost.
Denoke's voice had a slightly steely edge to it, which was appropriate for Marie, herself a target of condemnation after she had a child with Wozzeck out of wedlock. Hoare's voice soared and Faveyts' deep voice was imposing — and he had the best outfit, all in black except for a bright red tie. Also in the outstanding cast were Anna Burford (Marie's neighbor Margret) and Joshua Ellicott (Wozzeck's friend Andres).
Salonen drew shimmering sounds from the Philharmonia, making his way through the thick, complicated score with color, light and space. He had conducted three previous performances of the work in Germany and California in recent weeks with Johan Reuter in the title role.
The Westminster Choir and The American Boychoir provided the brief choral parts, and members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra sat alongside the Philharmonia players.
During the pair of one-minute pauses after each act, several well-dressed attendees walked up the aisle and out. There was a Lincoln Center Chairman's Council green room dinner.
They missed quite a performance.