On the face of it, Viktor Ullmann's The Fall of the Antichrist is straightforward enough. The Regent – a proxy for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini or your favourite tyrant of today – deals with three subjects: the Priest, the Technician and the Artist: the Priest and the Technician succumb to his threats and inducements; only the Artist resists them, inspired by an elderly gaoler, and survives to see the Regent fall from power.

Martin Štolba (Technician), Jakub Rousek (Regent) © Janáček Festival Brno
Martin Štolba (Technician), Jakub Rousek (Regent)
© Janáček Festival Brno

At the next level down, however, Jan Antonín Pitínský's production of the opera, for Moravian Theatre Olomouc, has to go down as one of the most confusing couple of hours of opera I've ever seen. I'm not all that great at obscure, allusive poetry, and the libretto of The Fall of the Antichrist is about as obscure and allusive as they come. Despite serviceable surtitles, I spent far too much of the evening not really being sure what the characters meant, what they were singing about or, in some cases, who the character singing actually was, amongst the mass of symbolism for at least three different cults, created by angelic/demonic figures and a variety of acolytes in a series of uniforms. There was some interesting staging going on – lighting and video effects, striking costumes, and a lot of movement, some of it obviously ritualised. I just didn't understand what most of it meant.

Milan Vlček (Artist), Jiři Přibyl (Old Man) © Janáček Festival Brno
Milan Vlček (Artist), Jiři Přibyl (Old Man)
© Janáček Festival Brno

If you're a prima la musica type, as opposed to prima le parole like me, this might not have bothered you, because Ullmann's score is sensational. There's plenty in the way of echoes of Schoenberg, there are occasions of Wagner-like rapture, there are moments which rival Bartók for ratcheting up the orchestral tension. The woodwind and horn writing is the most noticeable: Ullmann finds dozens of different ways to distribute the music among his wind players in a way that builds the emotional impact he wants, which is mainly one of ever-increasing angst (with only occasional moments of rapture or calm).

Conducted by Slovakian Miloslaw Oswald, one of the artistic directors of Moravian Theatre Olomouc, the orchestra gave it their all, attacking the score with no holds barred. This resulted in some thrilling sounds coming out of the pit, but it failed to take into account the space or the singers. Brno's Mahen Theatre isn't all that big, and has a nice warm acoustic, so the orchestra were seriously loud. The singers couldn't keep afloat, with the single exception of Jiří Přibyl as the Guard/Old man (the staging makes it a little unclear whether this is one or two separate people) who gives the Artist the strength to carry on. Přibyl showed enough support in a tightly focused bass to avoid being swamped. The other singers all showed good vocal acting ability, and there was no doubting their commitment. But they were inaudible when the orchestra was in full cry and there were signs of voices being strained even in the rare moments when the orchestra was restrained.

© Janáček Festival Brno
© Janáček Festival Brno

The Czech Republic is a country with a long and honourable tradition of experimental theatre, and I'm really pleased to have seen this opera performed. But to be recommendable to a wider audience, having great music isn't enough: there needs to be more attention to the balance between orchestra and voices, and some more help – by whatever means – in making the narrative intelligible.